Last winter, I wrote an article that as I wrote it, I couldn’t decide if I was serious or not. “A Creative Approach To Senate Reform” proposed a new method of selecting members of The Senate of Canada. The article was a response to a particular set of stars that had aligned in Ottawa, as each of the major parties proposed a different reform to the Senate as public disdain for the institution peaked during revelations about the Duffy/Wright affair.
The NDP preferred outright abolition, an objective crystallized by the party’s Roll Up The Red Carpet campaign. The ruling Conservatives preferred an elected Senate with term limits and had requested further clarification on how to go about this from The Supreme Court of Canada. The Liberals preferred a plan that involved a ‘non-partisan’ selection process similar to the Order of Canada.
My proposal, which I couldn’t decide if I was serious about at the time, was instead of copying the Order of Canada Council selection process, it should be actual Members of the Order who became Senators, paired with Governor General’s Arts Award Winners. This would allow The Senate to serve a new purpose in our democracy, and I hoped could aid our evolution from Constitutional Monarchy to Republic:
“The Senate itself will be transformed into a multi-purpose venue that will allow intense exploration and presentation of these issues as well as access for Canadians. The single biggest tourist attraction in Ottawa, it will act as a theatre, museum, concert hall, studio, digital laboratory, and workspace. An open-source intellectual crucible, The Senate will forge great and unprecedented responses to the issues elected Parliamentarians in The House of Commons will be drafting legislation to face.”
To prove this was possible, I drew a fat line between The Senate and the already-directly-funded-by-Parliament National Arts Centre on a map and suggested building a tunnel so they could help.
Seven months later, the conditions for Senate Reform couldn’t seem to have less momentum than when I first wrote about it. The absence of criminal charges against ex-PMO Chief of Staff Nigel Wright in conjunction with a Supreme Court ruling that poured cold water on the proposals put forward by the parties, has led to little attention to the issue by media and politicians.
And yet this issue is not going away. Criminal proceedings against Senator Mike Duffy begin simultaneously with the resumption of Parliament in the fall, which will bring increased media focus attracted by theatrics that only Ol’ Duff can provide. This seems likely to make Senate Reform a key issue in an election year, except this time none of the parties have a credible position on the issue.
The NDP’s position of abolition was completely sunk by The Supreme Court ruling, as it is a measure that would require unanimity from each of the Provinces of Canada, a state-of-being reserved exclusively for international hockey matches. The Conservative position of an elected Senate is also toast. The court ruled consent of seven Provinces, containing over 50% of Canadians (7/50) would be required to enact such a change. The Harper Government has already indicated that this means for them the issue is now dead.
Whether this 7/50 formula would also be required to enact the Liberal plan of a parallel Order of Canada appointment process is a murky calculation, revolving around whether such a process would change the “fundamental nature” of an appointed Senate. If yes, then a Constitutional Amendment using the 7/50 principal would be required. A huge factor in whether or not this change would be interpreted as “fundamental” is whether or not other Prime Ministers would also be obliged to use the same process to appoint Senators in the future.
In short, having an advisory committee to pick Senators may not trigger a round of constitutional talks, but institutionalizing one could.
Which has me back to my original, wasn’t sure if I was serious about it, but now I really am, proposal for Senate reform. If The PM were to announce that he or she would now be selecting from Members of The Order of Canada exclusively to fill vacancies in the Senate, it could accomplish the goals of the Liberal proposal for reform first suggested by Greg Sorbara in The Toronto Star.
The Order of Canada already exists, so it could not be seen as creating any new mechanisms that would compel a future PM to use the same process in selecting Senators. In fact, nothing about it SHOULD change. This would validate all candidates as having been proposed by an impartial panel that seeks the best and brightest Canadians. One finds it hard to imagine candidates like Patrick Brazzeau coming to the attention of The Order of Canada, which could go a long way towards rehabilitating the institution in the mind of he public.
So there you have it. I am not an expert in Constitutional matters, heck I never even wrote the LSATs, but it seems to this layperson that he has stumbled upon a Constitutional sweet-spot. That place where meaningful change can take place without long drawn out talks that bring out the existential worst in us as we question the very nature of our own Confederation.
This reform could be instituted immediately by the Prime Minister of a minority or majority government. It requires no one’s approval. It will rehabilitate the credibility of the institution and prove that whatever party engages in it is serious and successful on the file.
The Order of Senator is one new PM from becoming a reality, so future PM do me a favour and seriously consider the NAC/GG Winner connection (and tunnel!) from my original article if you run with this. I know it seems crazy at first, but creatives can help you come up with many solutions you may not have thought of on your own.