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Re-forming the SenateRe-forming the Senate

Re-forming the Senate

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Topics: Leadership, Elites
Re-forming the Senate March 14, 2014  |  By Gregory Butler
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There is a growing sense in Canada that something has to be done about the Senate, but also a strong pessimism that anything constructive can be done. There are calls to abolish it outright, or to elect it. The alternative is an elites option in which experts either draw up a list of worthy people for appointment or alternatively that selections be made from existing elites such as members of the Order of Canada or some other list. None of these options seem to have the necessary traction to overcome the inertia needed to reform the Senate and for good reason; however, I think there is a very Canadian solution to the problem which draws on both our historical experiences as a nation as well as the Western traditions of political governance.

Why should we care about the Senate at all? Without a good answer, abolishing it seems to be the obvious answer. Often overlooked in the debate about the Senate is the very good work done by dedicated members of the Senate. Giving wise men and women the time to review legislation is a worthy activity in a democracy, and giving them limited power to turn back bad legislation can provide an important check on the powers of governments in the Westminster style. The challenge, however, is that the current selection process does not appear to be selecting a slate of Senators who give confidence to Canadians across the political spectrum. The selection by election has often been suggested as a way around this problem. However, winning an election would very likely give senators a degree of political legitimacy that could lead to deadlock in Parliament. One party might hold sway in the Senate and another in the House of Commons. We might find ourselves in the position that budget bills could not pass and major pieces of legislation could become stuck. Moreover, constitutional reform would be required to limit the period of appointment to the Senate resulting in senators becoming entrenched in the political process while MPs come and go.

Appointment by elites or of elites is an unsatisfactory system as well. Canada has a long history of being suspicious of elites. The country intentionally chose not to have a domestic aristocracy despite embryonic versions in our early history. There are no true elite universities in the country despite efforts by the most research intensive universities to argue for such a grouping. As a result, it's not easy to determine who exactly would be the elites who would select or be selected for membership in the Senate. My suspicion is that such a route would be deeply unpopular.

A made-in-Canada approach to the Senate would be to select from the general population in an approximation of a jury system. However, since appointment would be potentially for years there should be a process through which Canadians opt into selection. I would propose that we create an institution called the College of the Senate. Members would be eligible for selection to the Senate by the Prime Minster. To become a member of the College, an individual would write a required test on Canadian history, another on Canadian politics, and a third test selected from economics, technology, arts or social science in a Canadian context. For admission to the College, an applicant would simply need to pass the tests at a first-year university level, but efforts would be made to identify and rank the top candidates. There would also be optional tests in French, aboriginal languages, and other languages for those with these abilities.

Once a person passed the test, they would become a member of the college. They would receive the right to add the letters C.S. after their name and get access to the College web system which would allow them to review Senate business, make comments, and generally engage in debate. Through this work every year, they would obtain a reputation score. They would be required to identify a party affiliation or chose independent status. The result of the test results, reputation score, and party affiliation would be a database of Canadians who have demonstrated a commitment to engage significantly in sober second thought on the bills before the legislature.

When a Senate position were to become vacant, the Prime Minister would have a long list of potential senators from whom to choose. He or she could select randomly, randomly by party affiliation, from candidates with the top test scores, from candidates with a specific linguistic ability, or from those with the best reputation. The Prime Minster might even use an age criteria by selecting candidates within a few years of the mandatory retirement age. The criteria would rest with the Prime Minister, but the choices would be by merit. The Prime Minster could not choose a specific person.

This system would modernize the concept of tribal councils and Athenian democracy. It utilizes the Platonic ideal in which citizens educate themselves to participate in the debates of the city or the nation. But it is not a traditionally elite system. No points are given for having the right university degree or job. All that is needed to join the College and to be eligible for the Senate is a library card, a willingness to build a reputation in the College for cogent argument, and the stamina to read legislation.

In this way, we can build a Senate we believe in—a Senate which fits into the existing constitutional framework, which is subordinate to the House of Commons, and which, when it lets us down, does so because we citizens are failing each other and not because elites are acting in self-interest.

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