The Canadian Citizen’s Senate: Radically Reforming Canada’s Second Chamber of Parliament

The Canadian Senate was founded in 1867, intended to be a chamber of sober second thought for the legislation passed through the House of Commons. Flash forward to the present, and election year after election year, senate reform springs up as a tertiary platform issue. Facing criticism from both the public and politicians, many prominent figures have suggested that the senate should be abolished. Conversely, some propose small reforms to the Senate to deal with its criticism, and some remain adamant that the system is fine as it is. Although these are the views that generally circulate in public discourse and the media, they are far from the only options available. There are many further drastic models for senate reform that do not receive the attention they merit. In particular, a second chamber composed of randomly sampled citizens – a general purpose and perpetual citizen’s assembly – that scrutinizes the House of Commons, is a powerful, yet under discussed alternative.

The Canadian Senate is the upper house of the Parliament of Canada, consisting of 105 members. Senators are appointed by the Governor General (the crown’s representative in the Canadian political system) on the advice of the Prime Minister. Seats are assigned to regions of the country, creating a distribution that notably overrepresents the less populous regions of Canada on a per capita basis. The Senate has the power to reject and amend legislation, meaning that every piece of legislation must pass both the Senate and the House of Commons to become law.

In the past decade or so, a few issues have drawn the ire of the public and government officials. First, there is a dual problem with Senate power. When the Senate does invoke its power, there are concerns that the Senate is undemocratic. Why should a group of unelected individuals have any control over the legislation passed by elected, accountable officials? On the other hand, when the Senate does not invoke its power often enough, it is criticized as a ‘rubber stamp committee’, and the public wonders why so many resources are being put into what is in essence an ineffectual ritual. This concern came to a boiling point in the 2016 Senate Expense Scandal, in which three Senators were accused of submitting fraudulent claims for the benefits programs provided to Senators (Wylde 1). Furthermore, the non partisan appointment process is dubious at best. Although Senators are technically appointed by the Governor General, they are recommended by the current Prime Minister. This has led to a state of affairs in which Senators almost always vote along party lines. This both defeats the purpose of the Senate, and creates an unwanted layer of arbitrary power – if a party wins an election in a term that just so happens to coincide with many senators retiring, they arbitrarily gain a lot of political power. With all these issues, one then asks, why does Canada have a senate at all? What, if anything, can be done to rectify its flaws?

There are a wide range of views on senate reform, too many to cover in this piece. However, the stances of the three major Canadian political parties in the 2019 election serve as a useful sample of public sentiment around the country. The New Democratic Party Leader, Jagmeet Singh has been exceptionally critical of the Senate, promising to abolish the Senate should his party come to power (Dennette 1). His primary concern is that the Senators are partisan and don’t represent Canadians. In response to criticism from voices like Singh’s, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party has promised to reform the Senate. In 2014, Trudeau ejected Senators from the liberal caucus, stating that there was no such thing as a ‘Liberal Senator’ anymore (Cudmore 1). In late 2015, Trudeau created an independent committee, the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments,  that was meant to recommend Senators on a merit-driven, non-partisan basis (Moscrop 1). Although originally promising, it was later revealed that the Prime Minister’s Office used partisan databases, checking for Liberal Party affiliation, to vet recommendations it received from the IABSA (LeBlanc 1). Trudeau’s attempted reforms are generally described as incremental and moderate. Finally, Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative party, has defended the partisan status of senators. He stated that the should he become Prime Minister, he would appoint Senators who would explicitly support Conservative party policies.

These three stances are straightforward and palatable to the general public, but they are derivative of the status quo and don’t consider many possible radical alternative reforms that could bolster Canada’s democracy. One particular issue that requires addressing is the lack of willingness to imagine democracy in a wider sense. The abolishment of the Senate, its incremental reform, or retaining the status quo all conform to an understanding of democracy that does not consider reforms to the Senate system that would empower it to serve a dramatically different, yet valuable purpose. In refusing to completely detach the Senate from the House of Commons by vesting appointment in the Prime Minister, the Senate remains stuck as a mirror of the House of Commons, regardless of incremental steps to make the appointment process ‘at arms length’ from the Prime Minister’s Office. Not all hope is lost however, as there is a compelling alternative that has remained largely undiscussed by the public.

An entirely different second chamber, composed of randomly selected citizens could replace the Senate. Michael K. MacKenzie, writing in Institutions for Future Generations, gives such a proposal in his piece A General-Purpose, Randomly Selected Chamber:

A randomly selected second chamber would help counterbalance some of the short-term tendencies associated with elected chambers. A randomly selected chamber would be capable of acting independently from the political dynamics of short electoral cycles, it would be representative of both short and long-term perspectives on different issues, and it would create an environment that is conducive to high-quality deliberation on politically complex long-term issues. (283)

MacKenzie’s main focus in his proposal is to combat the short-term thinking that is incentivized by election systems. He proposes a chamber of citizens serving short, staggered terms, selected through stratified random sampling. Members would be paid at a similar rate to elected officials, and would have very limited political power. The chamber would be able to debate bills and suggest amendments, but not block them indefinitely. MacKenzie argues that this chamber would be independent, representative, and deliberative. The first two qualities are quite straightforward, and the last element, deliberativeness, refers to having an environment wherein “each participant should be free and willing to both talk and listen. Participants should have (reasonably equal) opportunities to persuade others through argumentation and they should be willing to revise their own positions in response to new information or the arguments of others.” Ideally, this deliberative quality would ensure that the chamber can address long-term issues by helping members understand complex and interrelated issues. Additionally, MacKenzie cites studies that show that self-serving and short-sighted decisions are much harder to defend in an independent, representative and deliberative environment.

The qualities of such a second chamber would appease many of the qualms that the public and political officials have regarding the Canadian Senate, as well as provide many additional benefits. This should appease Singh’s camp, as it is in effect, completely abolishing the existing Senate, and leaving its partisanship and other vestigial features behind. This alternative also seems escapes the dangers of incremental reform exhibited by the Trudeau government’s dubious plots. Although it would go against Scheer’s preferences for partisan senators, many see no reason why the Senate should simply mirror the House of Commons, and thus his perspective can be dismissed. In addition to addressing these concerns, this second chamber would provide be able to scrutinize and judge government policy-making, in a way that would see more buy-in from the general public.

So far, this proposal seems promising. However, there are two main lines of skepticism that some individuals might have against MacKenzie’s proposal. First, that this second chamber would be ineffectual, as it “would not have the power to make laws itself—it would, instead, exercise a type of soft power” (Ibid. 283). Although it will not be as directly powerful as the current Senate, with the power to block and amend legislation, soft power is not necessarily any weaker. Admittedly, this argument relies on the reputation and status of the chamber. Should the chamber fall into disrepute, or their deliberation be seen as irrelevant, they will be largely ineffectual. However, given the representative nature of the chamber, as well as the general distrust of politicians in Canada – as well as most democracies – there is no reason why citizens would not welcome the judgement and recommendations of such a chamber. Secondly, some might be doubtful of the ability of the average citizen to perform such a duty. In response, one might point to examples where similar groups have tackled incredibly divisive and complex issues with great success. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly, formed in 2016, effectively tackled the abortion debate in Ireland, creating an understanding of general support that led a referendum with the power to instigate constitutional change on the issue (Irish Citizens’ Assembly). It isn’t hard to imagine a chamber, perhaps named the Canadian Citizen’s Senate, trying to deal with issues like those that faced the Irish Citizens’ Assembly in perpetuity.

Furthermore, the costs of trialing and testing such a chamber is quite low. Although there are significant costs associated with administration and development, in the grand scheme of things, if the chamber is unconvincing and fails to gain public attention, there is no real harm done. In the worst case scenario, a few million dollars are wasted, in the best case scenario, a radically effective, non-partisan and representative element of democracy is introduced into the Canadian political system.

Unfortunately, such suggestions may remain off the table simply due to their impracticality in the political arena. Trudeau’s reforms and to a lesser extent Singh’s reforms do not necessitate complicated changes to the constitution, and are thus easier to achieve. As we have seen with the Trudeau government’s struggles with overhauling the first-past-the-post system, any attempt to massively reform political systems takes an immense amount of effort and support. Perhaps then we have stumbled upon a systematic flaw with democracy, at its most crucial and reflexive application – with power spread between different parties and chambers, and with election year looming soon after the votes are tallied, where and when will there be time for the government and the public to consider serious reforms to the structure of our democracy itself? This is uncertain, but we can envision a senate composed of representative citizens, fulfilling the original purpose of the Senate. Hopefully, they would consider the long-term implications and complexities of public policy, and act as a true check on the House of Commons, or as Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister had put it, a chamber of sober second thought.

Works Cited

Cudmore, James. “Liberal Leader Says Senators Not Welcome in Caucus | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 30 Jan. 2014,https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/justin-trudeau-removes-senators-from-liberal-caucus-1.2515273.

Dennette, Nathan. “Singh Says Abolishing the Senate Would See Canadians Better Represented | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 15 Oct. 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/singh-ndp-senate-2019-election-1.5321129.

Leblanc, Daniel. “PMO Confirms Use of Partisan Database Liberalist to Vet Prospective Senators.” The Globe and Mail, 3 May 2019, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-pmo-confirms-use-partisan-database-liberalist-to-vet-prospective/.

Mackenzie, Michael K. “A General-Purpose, Randomly Selected Chamber.” Institutions For Future Generations, 2016, pp. 282–298., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198746959.003.0017.

Moscrop, David. “The Senate of Canada Is up on Its Hind Legs. Will It Bite?” Macleans.ca, 28 Nov. 2018, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/the-senate-of-canada-is-up-on-its-hind-legs-will-it-bite/.

“The Irish Citizens’ Assembly Overview.” The Irish Citizens’ Assembly Project, The Irish Citizens’ Assembly, http://www.citizenassembly.ie/work/.

Wylde, Adrian. “A Chronology of the Senate Expenses Scandal | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 13 July 2016, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/senate-expense-scandal-timeline-1.3677457.

 

 

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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