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The Senate chamber sits empty ahead of the return of Parliament on Sept. 16, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
The Senate chamber sits empty ahead of the return of Parliament on Sept. 16, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Globe Editorial

Take away the Senate's veto Add to ...

The Conservative senators were fully entitled to vote against the Climate Change Accountability Act on Tuesday, but the power of the Senate to reject Commons bills should be limited, in the same way that the British House of Lords is restrained.

The government members of the unelected upper house were not obliged to support a measure they disagreed with, or to let it pass by abstaining. What was at issue was a private member's bill, passed in the House of Commons by an ad-hoc alliance of the three opposition parties. The defeat of the bill was not an obstruction of the legislative program of a government with the confidence - in the parliamentary sense - of the elected chamber.

The Conservative government hopes that the current controversy can help accelerate Senate reform. But whether the Senate remains unelected or, as is highly desirable, is elected in a way that expresses provincial interests, the Commons, elected according to the principle of representation by population, should always eventually prevail.

In Britain, the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 have accomplished this. The first of these was a response to the Lords having become, in the words of David Lloyd George, then the Liberal finance minister, "Mr. Balfour's poodle"; with the encouragement of the Conservative opposition leader, Arthur Balfour, the Lords had defeated several bills that were at the core of the government's program. The solution was essentially to let the House of Commons pass a bill again in a subsequent session of Parliament, without further assent of the upper house - so that the Lords could significantly delay, but not definitively veto.

In Canada, an equivalent reform would require a constitutional amendment. Despite the understandable dread of "reopening the Constitution" ever since the Charlottetown Accord referendum of 1992, amendments have been passed in recent years, secularizing school systems in Quebec and Newfoundland. A constitutional change giving the Senate a suspending, not a final, veto ought to be equally uncontentious, being based on a widespread consensus of the supremacy of the House of Commons.

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