Lords of the Senate: A Tale of Two Upper Houses

Monday, November 2, 2015

  • Photo Credit: Chris Wattie/Reuters

    Photo Credit: Chris Wattie/Reuters

Written by Noel Mano

In the post-election euphoria that dominated the national mood for much of the past two weeks, a little political episode from across the pond may have gone unnoticed by most Canadians. However, both in its rarity and the promise it holds for other Westminster based parliamentary systems around the world, the events that transpired in the United Kingdom last week are significant indeed.

Here is a recap of what happened: David Cameron’s Conservative British government had attempted to pass a set of cuts to tax credits. Mr. Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, were continuing with their post-election austerity budget plans to cut £4.4 billion in tax credits for poor families and the working poor. Like most of the UK Conservatives’ budget plans over the past few years, this was expected to pass with little real opposition; the Tories, after all, had recently won an outright majority in the House of Commons after five years of governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Unexpectedly, the unelected upper house of the British Parliament, the House of Lords, revolted against these plans. First, they forced Mr. Osborne to delay the cuts until he could come up with a plan to compensate low-paid workers for a minimum of three years. The Lords then passed a second motion demanding the cuts be delayed until the Government responds to an analysis of the socioeconomic impact of the cuts by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. (For more detail, here is the Daily Mail’s coverage on the day of the votes)

This act of defiance provoked an outcry, and even looking past the Conservatives’ indignation that their budget plans had been upended by unelected nobility, it is extremely significant. For starters, the House of Lords had, for the first time in more than 100 years, rejected a finance measure approved by the Commons. In the UK’s famed unwritten constitution, centuries of tradition dictates that the Commons has primacy in financial matters. Secondly, even if the present legislation had not been financial, it would have run up against the Salisbury Convention, the tradition where the Lords do not oppose legislation promised in a government’s election manifesto. This year’s election manifesto saw the Conservative Party pledge to cut £12 billion from the welfare bill.

Whatever specific rules, traditions and perhaps even formal laws the Lords’ latest rebellion contravened will be hashed out in the UK over the coming weeks. Talk of flooding the upper house with more Tory peers or otherwise formally curtailing the Lords’ powers is rife among Conservative ministers and parliamentarians. Progressives, for their part, are jubilant: ‘Even the House of Lords couldn’t stomach Osborne’s tax credit cuts’, ran the title of a Guardian editorial, a version of a common theme across the British left following the Lords’ revolt.

I alluded in my opening statements that this action holds significance for other parliamentary systems around the world, and I come back to those here. In the run up to October 19th, the Canadian Senate was in the news for one reason and one reason alone: Mike Duffy. Every now and again, a party leader might mention reforming or abolishing the Senate (Liberal and New Democratic platform planks, respectively), but by and large, the upper house of Canada’s legislature was absent from this election.

However, in the weeks and months to come, the Senate may become significant again. For starters, Conservative senators hold a majority in the Senate, and in 2014, Justin Trudeau expelled every single Liberal senator from the caucus. More importantly, unlike in the UK, the letter of Canadian law does allow the Senate an absolute veto over legislation. Now, of course, the realities of political identification and democratic accountability mean that Conservative senators are unlikely to rip up Mr. Trudeau’s legislative agenda wholesale, but then, they are not fond of the Liberal party either. Andrew Coyne has written a more extensive piece here on likely parliamentary outcomes and the tactical opportunities available to Mr. Trudeau here, and so I will not go further into those. I will note, however, that in a conversation with Lloyd Longfield last week, the priority he identified upon the convening of parliament was the Liberals’ infrastructure plan and how it might work for Guelph.

Here I want to go back to the House of Lords’ adventurism from earlier this week. It represents a moment in which a house of parliament, quite out of character, acted as a strong check on a lower house policy that would have resulted in severe socioeconomic hardship. If nothing else, the Lords’ action at least delayed a controversial change to people’s pocketbooks until clearer data on the potential impacts becomes available.

On this side of the Atlantic, what the Lords’ did would be called sober second thought. Ultimately, this is why the Senate was created, and why it could be retooled to serve that purpose again. Over the 78 days of the campaign, the Senate seemed only to exist as a piece of political theater, but the election and the numbers that came out of it suggest a way forward. By now, many Canadians would have heard that the base of Conservative support held relatively steady in this election; the party lost only about 250,000 votes. The big reason Mr. Trudeau will be sworn in on Wednesday is because as turnout rose from 61 per cent to 69 per cent, the overwhelming majority of those new votes went to his party.

The point is, more democratic participation and more democratic avenues can produce significant changes in this country. The Senate should be one such avenue, a means by which voters put in place another mechanism to ensure the passage of sound legislation. In most Westminster systems, upper houses have long been regarded as fusty relics of a bygone age, noteworthy only when scandal consumes them. Canada, however, runs on a set of Constitutional documents often regarded as one of the world’s most progressive. She can and should take the lead here too. 

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