How to manufacture a non-partisan Senate

One suggestion for Senate reform

If the idea of a non-partisan Senate intrigues you, Jean-Rodrigue Pare has a suggestion about how you might do it.

Therefore, the key question is: how can we enhance the Senate’s popular legitimacy and foster senators’ independence without increasing the power of the Prime Minister? To make such a change, the Prime Minister would have to agree to delegate to another body the power to recommend senators’ appointments. The chances that such openness will happen are slim. By giving up this political advantage, the Prime Minister would create a precedent that could snowball and, if the confidence of the House of Commons became more fragile, force the Prime Minister to delegate recommendation powers in other areas.

A balanced solution would be to delegate the power to recommend the appointment of senators to a committee of the House of Commons that would meet in camera and make decisions by consensus.

This process would increase senators’ popular legitimacy while ensuring that the House of Commons remains the only confidence chamber. Consensus—no one is opposed—would be more practical than unanimity—all are agreed—and would eliminate any suspicion of partisan politics, since, in a majority government situation, a simple majority could be perceived as equivalent to a recommendation by the Prime Minister. The risk of such a process would be that a single committee member could systematically block all recommendations to bargain for a benefit elsewhere or to express opposition in principle to the institution itself. The ways to mitigate this risk are many, but the simplest is to require the opponent to present a reasonable alternative or lose the right to vote. Holding deliberations in camera would lead to better candidates. This might be considered an elitist argument, but there is honour in being selected without having sought the position. The Senate should be composed of distinguished individuals who have been chosen for the sincerity of their commitment to the country. A candidate who declared “I want to be a senator” would arouse suspicions of ambition and opportunism and render the recommendation less honourable. It would therefore be preferable for the discussions to take place behind closed doors and the recommended candidates to be announced only once they have accepted the position. The committee could take the form of a special committee made up of MPs from the province or region of the Senate vacancy.

I continue to find the arguments against abolishing the Senate to be less than entirely convincing—packing abolition with some reforms of the House and I think we’d probably be fine—and in principle I find it hard to accept that an appointed chamber should remain to sit in judgment of an elected chamber, but, whereas the other possibilities likely require some amount of constitutional change, this does have the simple advantages of practicality and plausibility. (I think I’d like it more if it could somehow include reducing the total number of seats in the Senate by half.)

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