Friday, September 23, 2016

History of the Senate: Kirby and Segal

There is a new and potentially important report by former Senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal on how to make the changing Senate work under the conditions of greater senatorial independence that seem to be taking shape. "A House Undivided" can be read in its entirety here, and the authors provide a summary in this Globe & Mail op-ed.

I must first say the report does not reflect at all well on the use by Canadian leaders of political history to advise the political present. The authors starat by telling us that the Quebec Conference (October 1864) preceded the "more famous" Charlottetown conference of September 1864.  (The author of Three Weeks in Quebec City quietly sighs.) Segal and Kirby also sustain the widely held notion that John A. Macdonald created confederation single-handedly, as almost all of their historical quotations on the intentions of the founders are his.

So, history more as support than illumination.  But in fact, Segal and Kirby still manage to display a very clear and sensible understanding of the Senate's purposes, limits, and possibilities as established in 1864-7.

In their report, this prominent Conservative and prominent Liberal wholeheartedly endorse the prospect of a non-partisan Senate. Their project is to begin setting out procedures by which a Senate without formal party structures would operate. No doubt there can be debate about their specific proposals, but these seem very promising. They argue that without constitutional amendment the Senate could organize itself to run its formal procedures by establishing regional (rather than party) caucuses, whose members would choose their own "Convenor" or manager, with Senators remaining free to also caucus in issue-related or even partisan assemblages as well, if they chose.  

That kind of Senate, they argue, could learn how to operate legitimately as a chamber of "sober second thought" (Macdonald) or "court of revision" (Alexander Mackenzie) substantially free of inappropriate influence from the Prime Minister's Office or the political parties.

Kirby and Segal sketch out scenarios by which a formally weak but respected independent Senate could work alongside the House of Commons in pursuit of better legislation and better public policy. They propose that the Senate would actually enhance its utility if it unilaterally abandoned its power of absolute veto in favour of a six-month's veto (as it currently has on constitutional changes).  They also suggest the net-worth and age requirements for Senators should be abolished -- while retaining the regional-based property requirement.

Update, 29 September:  Andrew Coyne likes it, in a grumpy sort of way.  Dale Smith hates it, also grumpily.  Is this what theorizing about parliamentary democracy tends to do: young fogey, middle-aged fogey ....
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