Senate reform made possible—and useful

The Senate expense scandal, and the government’s malodorous handling of it, has given new life to shopworn nostrums for reforming or eliminating Canada’s maligned upper chamber. All have flaws ranging from severe to fatal.

Eliminating the Senate would eliminate sober second thought, that useful brake on the unfettered power of a majority government in the “dictatorship between elections” that is Canadian democracy.

Electing the Senate would imbue the upper chamber with legitimacy, empowering it to act much as the U.S. Senate acts, with all the attendant complications for passing legislation.

Creating an Equal Senate, with the same number of members from every province, cannot achieve the level of provincial agreement required to amend the Constitution.

Into this hopeless policy morass comes my friend Bill Turpin, bearing a novel proposal that seems (a) capable of implementation, and (b) respectful of the valuable sober-second-thought function. Here’s Bill:

Among other things, the Senate is supposed to be a brake when the Commons is acting precipitously. The more it is politicized, the less effective and legitimate it becomes.

Desiderantes meliorem patriam They desire a better country

Desiderantes meliorem patriam
They desire a better country

The GG appoints senators on the recommendation of the prime minister. The office of prime minister exists solely by convention. Therefore, the current Senate appointments are made by convention.

Convention can be changed. All it would need is a well-intentioned PM.

A new convention could be for the PM to appoint senators from a list submitted by the Companions of the Order of Canada. This would be less arbitrary than the status quo, and it would eliminate partisanship from the Senate. Alternatively, the CC [as the Companions are designated] could make their recommendations directly to the GG.

Electing Senators is a bad idea. Currently, the Senate can delay House bills, but not kill them. An elected Senate could make a strong argument for that power, creating the potential for the gridlock we see in the US.

The CC could also appoint the GG directly, for that matter.

OK, let’s hear it. What’s wrong with this scheme?

(By way of background, Companions hold the highest rank in the Order of Canada. Membership is limited to 165 plus a small number of honorary members. Companions are appointed by the GG on recommendation of an Advisory Council consisting of the Chief Justice of Canada, the Clerk of the Queen’s Privy Council, the Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, the President of the Royal Society of Canada, the Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and five members of the Order of Canada who sit on the council for a three-year period. This is about as insulated from day-to-day politics as such a body can be.)