A distinct possibility exists that if no more senators misbehave and if Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives up (temporarily at least) on his control-freakishness on the Senate scandal (besides other matters), the entire topic, may, perhaps, at last vanish from our newspapers and our dinner tables.
This, if it happens, would be a great pity. What would have happened is that we would have squandered the chance to craft out a far better second parliamentary chamber for ourselves, one far more democratic and effective and representative and respected than the version we now have.
This rebuilding opportunity, itself the first of its kind in the near 150 years since the Senate was created for the Confederation deal of 1867, will never come again except in the peasants-with-pitchforks form of an irresistible popular demand for the Senate to be abolished.
That response, even though entirely understandable, would be thoroughly stupid. The Senate does do some good and important work. It does have some good people in it.
The original reason for creating it — to connect the regions to the national centre — was, even though never realized, wholly valid.
So, rather than going on and
on about what’s gone wrong, we should press the refresh button and attempt to construct an institution that's a whole lot better.
One start has already been made: the government has submitted a series of questions to the Supreme Court to determine the constitutional limits to changes it might make, including that of outright abolition. A useful second step would be for Harper to declare that he will appoint no new Senators until the process of reform has either been completed successfully or has failed irreversibly.
After that, anyone would be free to suggest whatever changes they want.
Of course many of the notions tossed up may be impractical, or, although well-intentioned, be damaging politically to the country.
But the discussion itself would be an exercise in democracy. And it could be creative in the sense of knitting the nation more closely together.
My source for that last, hopeful claim is that I’ve learned of a reform idea — to me an excellent one — advanced by a couple of very distinguished, retired political science professors. They are Peter H. Russell, formerly of the University of Toronto, and David E. Smith,
formerly of the University of Saskatchewan. The versions of each are slightly different.
The core proposition is that the prime minister should declare
he will make no more partisan appointments to the Senate (which doesn’t at all mean that first-rate individuals, such as Hugh Segal, a Conservative senator, could not be appointed to the second chamber).
This wipes clean the distasteful partisan aspect of the present Senate. Thereafter, talent and representation could, and should, become the prime qualifications for selection. Under the system proposed by the pair of profs, a national committee somewhat similar to the one that determines who should receive the Order of Canada would propose to the prime minister three candidates they judge suitable to fulfil each senatorial vacancy. The PM, as now provided for by the Constitution, would make the final decisions. (Russell favours a separate, high-toned selection committee in each province.)
The comparison with the Order of Canada isn’t exact. Members gain the honour, but thereafter are required to do nothing except carry a pin on their lapel.
Highly relevant, though, is that the system for selecting them is widely accepted even if some individuals may have quite justified doubts about a particular choice made or not made.
Canada being Canada, no system will be applauded by everyone. In particular, each province will watch intently that any new system doesn’t slight them or disadvantage them.
But the Russell/Smith idea is well worth talking about. So, equally, is Senator Segal’s suggestion for a national referendum to determine whether Canadians want to abolish the institution or to reform it. Such an act would provoke exactly what we now need — a national debate, about this option and a whole lot of others.
Whatever its form, the new system won’t be perfect. But it would be, could be, should be a great deal more democratic and inclusive and, above all, would attract to Ottawa many more individuals of talent and experience which they could then apply to the service of their country.
Most transformational of all, just about any new system would be better than the one we now have, even after its housekeeping has been cleaned up, because it would be a great deal more of a Canadian show.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every
other Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org