Saturday, August 29, 2009

No Senate for Old Men

Stephen Harper is sending more Conservative loyalists to that red-cushioned reward on Parliament Hill, and is consequently giving all of us another chance to wonder why Canada has a Senate to begin with.

I'd be hard-pressed to think of an extant legislative body more useless than the Senate of Canada. In theory, the Canadian Parliament is a bicameral system with the Senate acting as the place for "sober second thought" toward the bills sent up by the popularly-elected and far more relevant House of Commons, but in reality it doesn't work that way. Unlike the United States Senate, the Senate of Canada is not an elective body, because to be perfectly honest those in charge weren't all seriously jazzed about the concept of democracy back in 1867.

In my opinion, the Senate of Canada is irrelevant today as it currently exists. Its only function in practice is to provide cushy seats with which Prime Ministers can reward their friends, the ne plus ultra of Canada's political patronage culture. There has been some agitation for an elected, more representative Senate in the past - former Reform Party leader Preston Manning in particular.

Personally, I can't remember the last time the passage or failure of a bill into law hinged on the Senate's involvement. The Senate is disconnected from the political system at large; it has been one hundred and fifteen years since a Prime Minister derived his authority from a Senate seat. There's plenty of grumbling about doing away with the Senate entirely, which wouldn't change much politically speaking, but which no Prime Minister would ever do because, really, can you conceive of a Prime Minister of Canada willingly relinquishing authority without any immediate reason for doing so?

There is an alternative, though, for a Senate more responsible to the people - by making it a Senate that includes the ordinary people. What I would like to see, what I think would be a positive step for more democracy in Canadian government, is a Senate that is at least partially filled through the same mechanism as jury duty.

The idea of the "accidental politician" goes back a long way, and for good cause. Having a person stumble into a position of power without really shooting for it, or without the person having any expectation of success, is one of the most effective ways to maneuver someone into a position of power who is not preoccupied with the manner in which they'll exercise that power.

There are presently one hundred and five seats in the Senate. Even if only forty of these seats were cleared for "citizen senators," who could serve a limited term and then return to their civilian lives, our Prime Ministers would still have a final reward for the people who scratched their backs. Forty senators who came into the office not because of party loyalty or governmental favors, by contrast, might be able to make the chamber into one of "sober second thought" after all.

I was planning on writing a story about this a while ago now, but I never could piece together a plot. Pity.

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