At the very least, it can't hurt, right?
That's a tempting conclusion to draw when considering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's latest "reforms" of Canada's Senate. Gone is the longstanding tradition of the prime minister using a Senate seat as a reward for party activists, fundraisers, defeated candidates and other sinecure-seekers.
Instead, we now have a new "independent" appointment process, with prospective candidates able to submit applications, which are then vetted by a special appointments committee (the members of which are -- of course -- chosen by the prime minister).
Indeed, there's little reason to doubt Trudeau's sincerity with respect to making the Senate less partisan. In January 2014, well before he became prime minister, he booted all Senators from the Liberal Party caucus (where they promptly reorganized themselves into -- wait for it -- a Senate Liberal caucus, though they do not attend caucus together with Liberal Party MPs). And since becoming prime minister, his first Senate appointments have essentially been accomplished people with impressive resumes.
Senators examine legislation, and may tinker with it at the margins, but the unwritten rule is that in the end, they must allow the will of the elected House to prevail.
So what's the downside? What's wrong with trying to transform the Senate from a partisan chamber full of unqualified folks into an independent one with highly-qualified ones?
Setting aside for a moment whether we even need or want a Senate at all, the question that first must be answered is: what role should the Senate have?
The House of Commons is composed of elected Members of Parliament. Canadians cast votes to choose their MPs, giving MPs a democratic mandate. At the next election, Canadians can pass judgment on their MP with their votes -- an important mechanism for accountability.
The Senate is, of course, unelected. Accordingly, it lacks a democratic mandate from Canadians and a clear accountability mechanism, which is why its role has traditionally been described as a house of "sober second thought." Senators examine legislation, and may tinker with it at the margins, but the unwritten rule is that in the end, they must allow the will of the elected House to prevail.
Senators appointed under this new process will almost certainly be highly educated, accomplished professionals with a long track record of success in their fields of expertise.
With a few notable exceptions (including gutting a bill that would have imposed transparency on unions and one that would have stripped the pensions from politicians convicted of certain crimes) the Senate has normally approved legislation passed by the House.
However, this might change with the new process introduced by the Trudeau government. New "independent" Senators could be emboldened to test out their new levels of "independence" -- particularly in the form of pushing back even harder on legislation passed by the House. Indeed, some people may even hope that happens. And if it does, it will be undermining the will of the House -- and by extension, Canadians.
Senators appointed under this new process will almost certainly be highly educated, accomplished professionals with a long track record of success in their fields of expertise. They will be, in a word, elites.
And here's the thing about elites. They tend to think that they know much better than non-elites. After all, they're smarter and more qualified. And they were chosen for the role specifically because of those qualifications -- unlike MPs, who are merely "elected" by the masses under a party banner.
Now, these elites may have entirely good intentions. And it's certainly possible that legislation sent to the Senate may be "bad" legislation that many people wouldn't want to become law. But good intentions and the quality of the legislation are completely beside the point. Simply put, Senators have no right to block the will of elected politicians; elite status does not bestow the legitimacy that can only come from popular approval of voters.
Those celebrating the new "independent" Senate appointment process may want to dial back the enthusiasm. A less partisan Senate may soothe the concerns of those simply troubled by the hyper-partisanship prevalent in Canadian politics today. But it might also lead to law-making by self-important elites who think they know much better than the representatives chosen directly by Canadians -- which would undermine, rather than strengthen our democracy.
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