Hey Young Woman! Canada’s Senate needs you!

Canada’s Senate, that life-tenured repository of appointed political loyalists, ex-journalists and random washed up celebrities, got in the news recently after Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed three failed conservative MP candidates, including two who had resigned from their life time senate appointments to run. While all this is unethical and just serves to perpetuate the plutocracy and the welfare state Canadian politicians have set up for themselves, it is clearly the PM’s sole prerogative to do this. He would have done these appointments regardless of majority/minority. The PM knows that the median voter will only turf him in the event of obvious corruption, or a recession, not for riding roughshod over parliamentary procedures, or being divisive, or any such “subtle” issues.

There are calls to reform the senate to make it more relevant, and Stephen Harper has made noises about introducing legislation that will limit senators’ terms and provide for an elected model. The article is short on detail on exactly what the election process will look like.  But let’s look around for some examples, of course rule out the UK House of Lords, sorry, no point discussing hereditary peers!

  1. The American Model: Good god, no. The US Senate is unrepresentative and broken. It assigns two senators to each state regardless of population, and has procedures like the filibuster, anonymous secret holds, etc that are severely undemocratic. Just read George Packer’s devastating report in the New Yorker and you’ll run screaming from this option. Anyway, they have too much power, that’s the last thing we need. The Australian model is somewhat similar (though it uses the single transferable vote or STV for voting).  and is unrepresentative.
  2. The Indian Model. India’s Rajya Sabha. It is elected by the State’s MLAs through a regionally population weighted formula using a Single Transferable Vote multi-member list. Members are voted to 6 year terms. It has has a small percentage of appointed members meant for prominent scientists, artists, etc. The Rajya Sabha does not have equal powers, it cannot initiate appropriations bills, or reject them (only send them back). Also, in the event that the Rajya Sabha (assembly of “rulers”) disagrees with the Lok Sabha (the assembly of the people), there is a joint session, in which the Rajya Sabha, limited by number to 250, is always outnumbered by the Lok Sabha (not more than 552), and would generally lose. This has only happened three times, so in general, the Rajya Sabha serves as a rubber stamp body, and a place for politicians who aren’t up for an election campaign. However, members of the Rajya Sabha can be part of the cabinet, or even be PM. Most famously, India’s current PM Manmohan Singh is from the Rajya Sabha and has been there since 1991. The only time he ran for the Lok Sabha in 1999, he lost.  The Indian model is better than the US model, but I am not too keen on having PMs that have never been directly elected, there’s something wrong about that.

It appears that the original intent of Canada’s senate was to be an unelected body of people which provided sober, non-partisan review of House of Commons legislation. Given that the Canadian senate recently rejected climate change legislation Bill C-311 (with much rancour and little debate) after it had been passed by the House of Commons, this premise is dead. The voting was entirely on party lines, rejected democratically passed legislation, and debate was anything but sober. The current political system will only serve to make any Canadian Senate increasingly partisan (not always a bad thing, partisanship is honest). Voting will not change this much, even if the voting is based on proportional representation, which appears to not be too popular with the status quo. Why have a senate that once again prioritizes the voices of the elite, especially if we don’t intend the senate to have equal power? What to do?

Lottery Democracy, that’s what! Let’s randomly pick, based on provincial weighting, a certain number of people out of the elector pool, to serve in the senate for a fixed term, say 4 years or so. Also, since the current system biases towards age, let’s put an age restriction as well, younger than 35! Obviously, the pay has to be good enough, and the work has to be part time. The current senate sits for anywhere between 50-90 days in a year. Let’s pick a small enough senate, say a total of 50-100 senators, one minimum per province/territory,  then weighted by population. Let’s make most of the senate proceedings online friendly, so most voting, discussion, etc can happen by video conferencing, with 2-3 weeks per year face time in Ottawa. This way, the work is part time, and can be worked around jobs/children, etc. The pay will have to be good enough for the senators to afford good day care, etc.

What powers would we give this senate? The power of a second voice, nothing more. If the senate does not like a legislation, it sends the bill back for discussion. If the Commons chooses to pass it unchanged, have a joint vote. The number disparity between the Commons and the Senate would ensure that the Commons gets primacy, unless the bill is so egregiously divisive, and voting so close that a joint session produces a different result.

What are the advantages of having a randomly picked “young” senate?

  1. Age – Provides valuable policy experience and job training to someone just starting their career, not a sinecure and pension to someone finishing theirs off. At the end of 4-5 years, you get someone who has lived public policy. Obviously, a lot of training and civil service help will be needed, just like for MPs currently.
  2. Elitism – Since we will get a randomly selected senate, there are fewer White male middle aged lawyers.
  3. Representativeness – This provides a direct democracy element to our governance.
  4. Orthogonality – The senate is picked using rules completely different from the Commons, so we will get a different set of people.
  5. Ego and power – Being a politician means wanting to be one, and all the compromises that come with it. I am not a politician basher, many of them want to do good. But having a vote for people who did not have to raise money, or are not beholden to any special interest groups (in theory) provides a good complementary view.

I am under no illusion that this senate will be less “partisan”, whatever that means. We have strong biases whether we acknowledge them or not, and the senators will vote with these biases. That’s okay, politics is about making choices. But we can design senate rules to mitigate party affiliation and conflict of interests.

Obviously, just like jury duty, people could have an option to refuse for the right reasons, but there should be no other restrictions. If you’re eligible to vote, you’re eligible to be picked regardless of your past history. Will there be a few slackers, yes, but look at the current senate/house of commons, there are some who make you wonder… We also have people in the Senate appointed in 1979, clearly time to leave after 30 years!

So, hey young woman, you sitting in the corner pondering your next move, would you like to be a senator?

Image courtesy – Flickr – Andresrueda used under a creative commons license.

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