A Liberal Senate

Why Ignatieff’s proposed changes would increase the Senate’s legitimacy and effectiveness as a deliberative body

Continuing in the new Liberal tradition of proposing actual policy alternatives to the Conservative government, over the weekend Michael Ignatieff served up his own ideas for how to reform the Senate. He’d limit terms to 12 years, and look at passing the appointments through some sort of arms-length board or commission.

This is, I think, a better proposal than Harper’s current plan, which – assuming he isn’t just dicking around – seems to be to stack the Senate with incompetents, blind partisans, and other pieces of ambulatory play-doh, and hope that when he figures out what he actually wants to do, they’ll be more than happy to play along.

A few remarks, sort if in response to some good comments under Aaron’s post:

Yes, the Liberal-dominated Senate asked to send Harper’s bill establishing 8-year limits to the Supreme Court. But the 12-year limit might have a better chance of passing as a unilateral (i.e. non-constitutional) change, since that is pretty much the actual average tenure of Senators. The bonus is that it would have the effect of equalizing Senate appointments.

I like the idea of a public appointments commission, but I wonder if it might actually make the chamber more effective if it retained some provision for partisan appointments as well, like the hybrid system for appointing life peers to the  House of Lords. Conquest’s second law has it that any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing. Maybe, but given what we know about bureaucracies in Canada, at the very least the appointments commission will be open to the charge by the government of the day that it has become politically compromised. A mechanism for some partisan appointments will help offset that charge, while giving the Senate a healthy representation of partisans.

Together, Ignatieff’s proposed changes will have the effect of increasing the Senate’s legitimacy and effectiveness as a deliberative body, which I think ought to be its primary function. With legitimacy will come a sense of political responsibility, which means that these might need to be accompanied by a third change, viz., some attenuation of the Senate’s powers, assuming we want to retain the more-or-less unicameral character of our system of responsible government.

Cripes, the Senate is a can of worms. Still, I think that Ignatieff’s proposal, though sketchy, already has more promise than whatever it is Harper hasn’t in mind.