THE BLOG

Don't Abolish Senators, Choose Better Ones

06/03/2013 03:47 EDT | Updated 08/02/2013 05:12 EDT
CP

This is the final post on the Senate series. Somewhat surprising has been the number of respondents wishing to keep the Senate but in a reformed state. There appears to be a rough consensus that something is required to round off the rough edges of the House of Commons, something which only a reformed Senate could accomplish.

There have been many profound arguments for abolishing the Senate or changing it to an elected Chamber, but those negotiations would be so constitutionally fraught with hedging and acrimony, not to mention provincial wrangling, that it would be a process likely to take years and with no guarantee of success. For now it is important to recognize that most Canadians pressing for change are sincere about their democracy and willing to pursue the measures necessary, despite their differences, to bring about change.

But what is happening in both the House of Commons and the Senate at the moment represents a serious enough threat to our democracy that we require remedial efforts in real time, far in advance of whatever constitutional refinements to these institutions that might lie in the future.

Our focus should be upon the selection process for Senators, at least in the interim. Every member in the House of Commons has been elected but its present dysfunction has revealed some aren't fit for office, while the majority marginalize their influence by subscribing to strict party control. Partisan wrangling has now crept into the Senate to such a degree that its attention is more on party favours than effective legislation. What we require are Senators who put the country ahead of cronies. For those who believe that compromise and respect are essential to the political process, we need to have a Senate worthy of our trust in those aspects.

How we select such individuals is the crux of the matter. Clearly, Prime Ministers can appoint people better classified as mouthpieces than effective sounding boards. We've had enough of that in recent years. Appointment by the highest elected official in the land whose primary purpose appears to have become more the strength of the party as opposed to the country isn't the way to go for the future.

Conservative Party strategist Tom Flanagan, along with others, has put forward some possibilities for the selection of Senators partially based upon Britain's development of mechanisms for appointment. He points to the House of Lord Appointment Commission, which names non-partisan members. Britain's system isn't perfect either but it is attempting to keep the strength of the Upper Chamber while allowing for reform that's doable. The selection committee would refer their choices to the Canadian Prime Minister, thereby keeping the process within the general guidelines of the Constitution.

Some have suggested permitting provincial legislatures to forward recommendations to the PM. This idea has been mentioned previously, but perhaps now is the time to start some serious discussions. The PM could lead the way on this, if he could just get his head out of the partisan game.

Other suggestions have been equally as innovative. More than a few have recommended using Order of Canada honourees to make up the selection committee that would then deliberate and put ideas forward.

Flanagan maintains that "election is the best way of conferring legitimacy upon a legislative body." Really? In times past perhaps, but at present our "elected" representatives in the House have done more in the last 10 years to de-legitimize politics than anything in recent memory. Elective authority requires two key ingredients: a citizenry that takes the franchise seriously and representatives who place their commitment to effective legislation and the betterment of the country above the tribal calling of parties.

Canada has gone through tough times politically before, but the steep decline of respect, compromise, and innovation in the political order has led to an era where the public is rapidly losing confidence in how they are governed -- elected or appointed. This can never be fixed by appointing cronies or electing hyper-partisans. The best solution for any political system in the world is an engaged citizenry in concert with qualified representatives who put honour above haughtiness, principle before partisanship, and who pursue compromise over contentiousness. Put people like that in the Senate. Elect them to the House. And perhaps then we might have a political order we can count on and that can help to confront our mounting challenges.

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