Robyn Benson, PSAC

A Senate reformed?

Canadian Senate.jpg

The Supreme Court of Canada will shortly tell us what constitutional hurdles must be jumped if we are to reform the Senate—or abolish it outright.

Let’s assume that abolishing the Senate will prove to be too steep a constitutional hill to climb. It may well require the unanimous consent of the provinces, an unlikely prospect. Besides, there are good arguments for retaining an Upper House. Just not this Upper House.

Imagine, for example, a runaway majority government bulldozing badly-thought-out legislation through the House of Commons with a mandate from only a minority of voters. Oh, wait—we have one of those already. OK, next step: the legislation goes to another body, a Senate, for consideration, reflection, informed discussion: the famous “sober second thought.”

We wouldn’t want a Senate with anything like the power of our elected representatives in the House of Commons. Its current powers—to consider draft legislation, to send it back to the House for further consideration if found to be deeply flawed, to initiate legislation on rare occasions—are quite enough. What is needed is considered, thoughtful, constructive opinion.

Worst-case scenario: the Senate is hand-picked by the Prime Minister. He proceeds to stuff it with unthinking yes-people: right-wing media hacks, Conservative bagpersons, boorish sexists, greedy privilege-seekers. The main thing—in fact the only thing—is that they will vote as they’re told.

That’s what we have right now. But in fairness, Harper has only been following a long tradition of administering what one wag has called the “taskless thanks.” No wonder there have been so many calls for just getting rid of the whole kit and caboodle.

Yet even under the current system, we can get a glimpse or two of what might be possible. Not all of the Senators turn out to be trained seals when appointed. A striking example is Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who has spoken out forcefully and passionately against Bill C-377, a discriminatory, anti-union piece of legislation that would swamp unions (but not corporations and other organizations) with paperwork, and violate the privacy of nearly everyone doing business with them. In this he has been joined by Liberal Senator James Cowan, whose measured objections impressed Senators on both sides of the Upper House.

Harper, of course, is having none of this sober second thinking, and is reportedly going to force the Senate to meet through the summer to pass the Bill. But that only underlines the fact that a Senate may be potentially more than an expensive relic. Imagine an Upper House where principled people like Hugh Segal and James Cowan were the rule, not the exception.

Suppose that the Senate were chosen in a different way. What if Senators were elected instead of appointed by one person? One objection comes quickly to mind: we run the risk of simply repeating the hyper-partisanship that presently defines our House of Commons. Do we want another partisan chamber? Is it value-added, or a pointless duplication? Sober second thoughts, or knee-jerk political reflexes?

So, then, what about an improved appointment system? Perhaps an all-party committee of the House of Commons could choose Senators, based upon non-political criteria: certain proven abilities and skills in analyzing legislation, for example, or experience in the area of social policy.

That, too, prompts objections. There seems to be a certain elitism built into this idea. We don’t set credentials for serving on a jury, for example, but we entrust much of the justice system to ordinary citizens. Why not have a Senate composed in the same way, drawn from a pool of citizens, with relatively short terms in office? For those who are hesitating, how could this be worse than what we have now?

I raise these possibilities only as suggestions for discussion. If we are stuck with a Senate, what is the best Senate we can hope for? On the eve of the Supreme Court decision, perhaps the time is ripe for a national conversation to take place. These are my preliminary thoughts on the debate we need to have. What are yours?

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on April 29, 2013 8:00 AM.

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