Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What is the point of the Canadian Senate: Either make it a council of eminent persons or abolish it

The Canadian Senate currently consists of members appointed by the Prime Minister. Reform is needed, but the question is, what type of reform? I would be open to seeing it abolished entirely, however below I suggest criteria for improving its function even if it remains an appointed body. I certainly don't want to see it become elected: If you make it elected, then you will end up with a powerful house, just like the US Senate, that may at times oppose the will of both the leader of Government (the prime minister) and the House of Commons and will certainly hamper the ability to pass sensible legislation.

It seems to me that the concept of an Upper House is to have highly respected people, i.e. ‘elders’ (or historically ‘nobles’) provide a safety net to ensure that ill-thought-out legislation with unintended consequences does not become law. A Senate should be able to pass such laws back for further consideration to the Lower House. To perform this role, Senators need to be respected people with experience. They can’t be people who have to worry about getting elected at the next election, since that defeats the whole purpose.

Current proposals to make the Canadian Senate elected will result in there being no appreciable difference between the two Houses of Parliament. Senators will have a ‘mandate’ for action, which may conflict with the mandate o the Government in the House of Commons. Furthermore elected Senators are likely to have the same shortsighted tendency to think only about things that will bolster their popularity in time for the next election.

I see only two courses of action that make any sense: The first is to truly make the Senate a chamber of sober second-thought by means-testing members: They must be people with long records of achievement, such as industrial or non-profit leadership positions, or else professional or academic qualifications with a long period of practice. To ensure that democracy prevails and the prime-minister-of-the day can’t stack the Senate with people of his political stripe, it would make sense that every senator should be approved by a two-thirds majority of the members of the elected House of Commons, perhaps for 6-year renewable terms. The prime minister would then be forced to suggest people he knows would be palatable to the opposition. I also think the mandatory retirement age should be abolished. There are many older people who have a lot to contribute; the 6-year term would ensure that Senators whose abilities decline would not be reappointed.

The other course of action is to abolish the Senate. After all, it has almost always rubber stamped bills. The only time recently it didn’t, it defeated the Climate Change Accountability Act without any debate, purely using procedural trickery. 

I certainly don’t agree with what the current Conservative government wants to do. Nor do I agree with the ‘triple-E’ concept (equal, elected and effective). In a country with provinces so widely varying in size and population, I think it pointless to try to balance membership any more than what is currently provided for in the constitution. As discussed above, I don’t agree with ‘elected’. The only thing I do agree with is ‘effective’, if that can be achieved.

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