Friday, April 20, 2007

The appointed Senate needs a pitch man

The poor appointed Senate. It's a bit like Rodney Dangerfield – never gets no respect. The Globe & Mail's little on-line poll yesterday asked readers whether they favoured appointed or elected Senators, or abolishing the institution all together. That 87% of responders favoured tossing a live grenade through the chamber doors should give Stephen Harper pause, if he's thinking about making this issue his Waterloo. On-line polls like this aren't remotely scientific, but even a margin of error of 20 points means that fully two thirds of Canadians think Senate reform is a pointless exercise.

That said, I'm actually among the whopping 3% of folks who think appointed Senators are a good idea. I genuinely believe there's a valid role for our society's elites in evaluating and helping shape our country's laws.

Senators get a bad rap and the common perception of them is that they're a bunch of geriatric party hacks who've been handed a sweet salary and pension for doing basically nothing. And there are, no doubt, more than a few for whom this description is right on the money. But there are plenty of elected politicians who are not exactly prizes. For all it's strengths, the democratic process doesn't always result in the selection of the best and brightest.

And there are a lot of people who bristle at the very notion that our society ought to even acknowledge its elites, let alone accord them privilege or power. It's the antithesis of whatever socialist leanings we may have. It's also, I think, a product of the "American Idol" mentality, where everyone thinks they can – and should – be a star. The people who've experienced success aren't better than me, they're just luckier.

Call me naïve, but I tend to think that most accomplished people got that way by being good at their jobs – by being smart and resourceful and talented. And along the way to and through their success, they had experiences that broadened their perspectives and provided useful insights into the way at least certain aspects of society function and can function better. Whether they're doctors or artists or business leaders or, yes, even political organizers (gotta leave an opening for my own appointment someday, don't I?), a pool drawn from society's most accomplished individuals can – and I think does – add value to the legislative process.

I'm all for democracy, but choosing decision makers by voting for them does have its downside. We see examples all the time of legislative or budgetary choices that have more to do with what's popular with voters than with what is objectively in the best interests of the citizenry. An appointed legislative body provides some balance against the inherent tendencies of elected politicians – across the political spectrum – to pander to their supporters or potential supporters.

So the Senate has its function, but it also knows its place. The elected body of the House of Commons remains dominant, as it should be. The appointed Senate doesn't pretend to be the central legislative institution. It's the body of "sober second thought". It seems inevitable to me that an elected Senate would expect its legislative will to be on a par with that of the House of Commons, and that's a recipe for the kind of deadlock we often see south of the border, particularly when the two houses are held by different parties.

There are things about the Senate that can be improved, to be sure. The distribution of Senators disproportionately favours some provinces over others. And the appointment process could be taken out of the hands of the PMO, or at least could include an appointments committee that sought to make appointments less overtly partisan. But the Harper government's half-assed approach to reform solves none of the real propblems and only serves to create new ones. Electing Senators only serves to create a second institution driven by partisan and electoral objectives, and abolition removes a set of legislative functions we can't afford to lose.

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