The Wrong Triple-E Senate: of Elites, by Elites, for Elites

It is hard to imagine a worse method of picking members of the Upper Chamber than the undemocratic Prime Ministerial appointments we have had for almost a century and a half. Yet a growing group of commentators have found one—as well as someone to champion it. In January, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau adopted an idea that has circulated among mostly academics to turn over Senatorial selections to an appointment commission, similar to the one that chooses Order-of-Canada recipients.

What problem is he trying to solve with this proposal?

Perhaps he wants to eliminate politics from the Senate.

But what are senators, if not politicians? Are they bureaucrats? Judges? Spiritual leaders?

Legislative bodies are, by definition, political. No matter how they are chosen, every single Senator is a politician—whether they like it or not. The proposed appointment commission would have the task of asking apolitical politicians to do political work in a political institution. After we achieve this goal, we will all go swimming in a waterless ocean.

Not only would the Senators continue to be political, so too would the commission that chose them. Candidates for upper chamber would still need to campaign for a seat in the Senate. The only difference is the constituency that they would need to win over would be a group of appointment commissioners, rather than an elected Prime Minister. These commissioners would presumably be human, possessing all the human biases, flaws and personal relationships, as anyone else. They would have advantages to seek and favours to repay. Those would play out in appointments.

In politics, we call that cronyism. Only here, it would be free from scrutiny. Because the average person would have no idea who is on the commission, he would have no way of knowing or judging the relationships behind the appointments it makes. It would not “take politics out of the process”, but hide the politics behind a veil of secrecy in the hands of nameless, faceless players.

And who would appoint the “appointment commissioners” themselves? The Prime Minister? But wait — wasn’t the purpose of the whole exercise to remove Prime Ministerial discretion from the matter? If you cannot trust partisan figures – such as Prime Ministers – to pick Senators, how can we trust them to pick the people who pick the Senators?

If the appointment panel wouldn’t remove politics or cronyism, would it at least remedy the Chamber’s undemocratic nature? Actually, it would do the opposite. Not only would Senators remain unelected, the people who chose them would likewise be unelected. So an unelected, unaccountable body would appoint an unelected, unaccountable body, leaving the Senate two steps removed from voters instead of one.

Think of the enormous power this unelected appointment body would have. In a system with two Houses that have roughly the same legal powers, one would be chosen by roughly 25 million eligible voters and the other by roughly 25 unelected commissioners. Each commissioner would have the political weight of a million citizens.

That would give us a new kind of “Triple-E” Senate: of the Elites, by the Elites and for the Elites. Not exactly the stuff of the Gettysburg address.

We can dream of an idealistic group of sages, free from party, ideology and personal interest and bound only by objective truth, as their superior minds give them light to see it. Unfortunately, the Senate resides down here in the real world.

One real-world solution has succeeded in Alberta, where the provincial government has held numerous non-binding senatorial elections. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has accepted the outcome and put the winners in the upper chamber. Now the government is asking the court if we can take this approach in every province. If so, we will have the beginnings of democracy in Canada’s Senate for the first time in 147 years.

Pierre Poilievre
Minister of State (Democratic Reform)

*As submitted to iPolitics on Feb 21, 2014