Second thoughts on the Senate

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Since its inception as a party, the NDP has called for the Senate to be abolished. How can an unelected body be allowed to overrule the elected House of Commons? On democratic grounds there are irrefutable arguments for abolishing the Senate.

Without a mandate from the people, senators lack legitimacy as parliamentarians to vote on public matters. Surely it is an affront to democracy when laws to be applied to all Canadians become subject to approval of partisan appointees.

The NDP desire to abolish the Senate is gaining support. Disgust with the Senate focuses on the misuse of public funds. Senator Mike Duffy, a long-time resident of Ottawa, claims expenses for a principal residence elsewhere, and his expenses are approved. How could he ask for money he did not deserve ... and then be granted it?

Senate membership is determined by the prime minister, as if Canada were a constitutional tyranny. Under both Liberal and Conservative governments, senators have been paid by the public to do work on behalf of the party that appointed them.

Justin Trudeau thinks the Senate could be fixed by appointing better senators. Highly qualified individuals have been appointed over the years and done good work. But the temptation to provide what the late CBC journalist Larry Zolf so aptly described as "a taskless thanks" to party servants has proven impossible to resist for successive prime ministers.

Appointees favoured by the powerful do not accurately reflect the diversity of the population. Are we surprised women are under-represented?

The Senate was supposed to reflect the regions, but under rules established in the 1867 Constitution, the Senate has unbalanced representation. Today, Western Canada comes out well short of seats compared with earlier members of Confederation.

In her remarkable work, Grits, the late Christina McCall described how the Senate Banking and Finance committee directly protected the interests of financial capital from intrusive legislation originating in the House of Commons. She showed how senators sat on bank boards, and then protected and promoted bank views of the public good.

The only thing worse than the current Senate would be an elected Senate with an equal number of representatives from each of the provinces. Such a monstrosity would be able to legitimately halt legislation, and control the public agenda.

Diluting representation by population as reflected in the composition of the House of Commons, by mixing in elected senators supposedly reflecting provincial interests is a recipe for legislative gridlock, as the U.S. situation shows.

An American-style Senate, the dream of the Reform Party founder Preston Manning is simply incompatible with a parliamentary system of responsible government. A majority in the House of Commons -- and the government it chooses to take power -- would be rendered meaningless if the Senate could vote against its every decision.

One bright spot has been Senate Committees, which in the past have produced some very important research reports, on subjects such as the mass media, poverty, unemployment and mental health.

Building on these successes, if its legislative power to block the House of Commons were to be limited, an alternatively constituted Senate could exert a favourable influence over public policy by investigating and reporting on important issues. More consultation, reflection, research and analysis needs to fuel parliamentary debates.

Is there a way to constitute an invigorated Senate that would have public legitimacy without undermining electoral democracy?

In Ancient Greece, a main source of democratic ideas, most public positions were filled by lot. The same principle could be applied to the Canadian Senate.

Any qualified citizen would be entitled to apply to be a senator, and names would be drawn by lot, and then each successful candidate carefully interviewed to ensure they met agreed qualifications.

One big plus would be the Senate could establish gender parity simply by drawing lots separately for women and for men. During the Charlottetown constitutional talks, a major public consultation in Calgary, under government auspices, called for a Senate made up of an equal number of men and women.

Language equality could be furthered if candidates were required to master one of the two official languages, and be prepared to study the other language, and successfully pass a test within two years of being appointed. Otherwise the person would have to give up the seat.

Canada accepts the jury system for criminal trials: it is part of democracy to trust in the ability of citizens drawn by lot to decide the fate of other citizens. Such juries chosen by chance are not infallible, but they have proven reliable, and perhaps preferable to leaving matters of reflection to experts.

Canada imposes qualifications for voting and relies on citizens casting ballots to choose its representatives to Parliament, to legislatures, municipal councils, school boards and for a host of associations.

Why should we not allow citizens to put themselves forward for high office and allow luck to decide who takes on the responsibility of office?

Senators selected by lot could be asked to serve terms of seven years. Knowing in advance the requirements for office, as well as the benefits, would allow citizens to self-select according to the time of life when a contribution to public life made the most sense.

The all-important qualifications for office would include an educational requirement, say, completion of a trades school or secondary school; residency in Canada for 10 years (or longer) prior to applying; and an age condition (apply before the 70th birthday, say).

Reforming the method of selection of senators would be an important first step in Senate reform. Candidates would be chosen on a regional basis according to the province of residence, ideally from within geographical senatorial districts. On what basis the 100 seats drawn by lot would be distributed would need to be agreed: either the current distribution or a new one.

Selecting senators by lot would allow Prime Minister Tom Mulcair to keep his promise not to appoint any new senators. In the spirit of democracy, the new senators would be charged with identifying issues and problems, researching and consulting the population, and reporting to Parliament and the country. Senators would be tasked with acting in the public interest.

What shall guard the guardians, asked the Greeks? Our electoral democracy entrusted Canadian peace, security and prosperity to the Harper government. Perhaps having a place for airing sober second thoughts is not that bad an idea after all.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Scazon/flickr

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