Gregory Sorbara’s formula for an independent, non-partisan Senate
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Prime Minister Harper could leave a lasting legacy as the prime minister who gave up the luxury of offering personal privilege to the few in order to more democratically serve the interest of the many.
May 22 2013. By: Gregory Sorbara
The Canadian Senate has become an embarrassment to a country that touts itself as a champion of effective democracy.
Yesterday’s attempt by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to suggest that he is serious about cleaning up the senatorial mess was not helpful. The Senate remains a serious joke that keeps on giving as enablers Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin keep it all rolling downhill, along with the inappropriate largesse of the right hand of the Harper.
Let’s be clear, Nigel Wright was wrong to give Duffy 90 grand to “make things go away.” While the effect of this latter indiscretion will likely be the source of further examination, the effect of all of this is to have a significant number of Canadians calling for abolishing the red chamber.
I think there is a better way.
If Harper were serious about Senate reform, he wouldn’t continue to hide behind his reference to the Supreme Court, a tactic that appears to many observers to be about delay rather than two actions he could take right now. He could give up the divine right of prime ministers to make Senate appointments and, more important, he could take steps to delink the Senate from the partisan structure that is the organizational basis of the House of Commons.
First, the appointments process. What a major step it would be for Harper to voluntarily divest himself of the power to appoint new members of the Senate. That power could be transferred to a 20-member Senate Appointments Committee (SAC) made up of respected members of the Order of Canada. It would be the responsibility of the Governor General, using a lens of diversity regarding the Order of Canada cohort, to populate the members of such a committee from time to time.
No need to remove any of the incumbent cast of characters. But as vacancies in the Senate occur, the new process would replace the crassly partisan nature of current appointments that the prime minister and many of his predecessors have found too tempting to set aside.
New senators would be appointed for a term of six years and be eligible for a one-time renewal for a further six years. The SAC would abide by the currently prescribed allocation of seats among the regions of Canada. This model has been proposed before. What would be new is for a prime minister who apparently believes in Senate reform to actually do something about it.
While the appointment reforms are absolutely necessary, it is only a half a loaf when it comes to modernizing and democratizing our Senate. It is critical that we abolish once and for all the partisan nature of the Canadian Senate. And this could be done immediately.
No longer would senators sit as members of one political caucus or another. All 104 would be independent members. There would be no government leader of the Senate, no opposition leader. No more “whipping” senators into lock-stepping. Senators would not be permitted to attend or participate in the party caucuses of the House of Commons even if they choose to maintain a personal political affiliation.
The political parties that are a crucial part of the effective working of the House of Commons would have no partisan sway over the priorities and decisions of the Senate. No speaking notes passed to Senators either over or under the table; no party whips to secure passage of, or opposition to, legislation that comes before the Senate. No partisan bravado at all. No more campaigning for those who have House of Commons aspirations.
We would then be served by a body of 104 independent legislators who possessed limited power to comment on and/or refine bills that come before the Canadian Parliament — an Upper House of sober — and truly independent — second thought, with renewed responsibility to truly reflect the regional nature of the federation.
Such reforms would require no new legislation. All of it could be accomplished by a thorough rewriting of the standing orders that govern the operation of the Senate along with the elimination of the public funds that support the caucus structure within the Senate. These are simple changes that would carry high impact results informed by transparency and independence.
Before taking on the prime ministerial cloak, Stephen Harper was among the harshest critics of the moribund nature of our Senate. Recent and embarrassing headlines have made it obvious that this prime minister has made things even worse since he has assumed office.
Behavior is what counts. It is never too late to do the right things and never too early to contribute to a lasting legacy as the prime minister who gained historical prominence — as a leader who gave up the luxury of offering personal privilege to the few in order to more democratically serve the interest of the many.
Gregory Sorbara is a former Ontario MPP.
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