Responsible Government and Senate appointments

This past week, the calls for Senate reform and/or abolition have suddenly taken on a renewed fever pitch – despite the fact that the issue has precisely zero to do with the problems that certain members of said institution face. But it hasn’t stopped the floodgates of shallow, insipid, and frankly boneheaded plans and schemes from being forwarded, each person more confident than the last that they know the true meaning of democracy and how to deliver the panacea to the supposed ills of our Parliamentary democracy.

Not unsurprisingly, the NDP rolled out a new campaign to try and drum up support for abolition, one of its front-men being a law professor with an apparent blind spot when it comes to the small matter of the constitution, and a leader from Quebec who seems ignorant of the fact that the Senate has been one of the most important mechanisms to balance representation for that province at the federal level. And disappointingly, the unsigned editorial in this week’s Maclean’s picks up that call with the most intellectually lazy of arguments, tarring the ethical behaviour of three errant Senators and the PMO onto the entire institution with zero regard for the realities of what it does or the magnitude of what has transpired on the Senate side in the past few weeks. The other problem with the calls from the NDP and said Maclean’s editorial is that it shifts the blame for the ethical lapses onto the institution, as though the elected officials in the Commons could never be caught out doing the very same thing – and they have been – and more to the point, it shifts the attention away from the Prime Minister and his office. So, mission accomplished there.

Those who know that abolition is impossible, and that elections are equally undesirable for the host of additional problems that they would create (not the least of which is the prospect of intractable gridlock) have also started suggesting novel new ways of trying to introduce fanciful reforms to the appointment process as some means of ensuring a better quality of Senator be appointed. Such suggestions have ranged from an independent appointments commission, as they have in the UK to appoint “cross-bench” or independent peers in the House of Lords, to the rather bizarre suggestion by former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara, who wants the Order of Canada membership to determine future Senators at six-year terms (never mind that half of the point of the Senate is to have longer-term appointments to provide both institutional memory and long-term perspective that MPs lack, and the fact that it takes an average of three years for Senators to get up to speed on their jobs). Most of the Sorbara piece is debunked in this great post by @ks_TO, but there are additional criticisms that I feel need to be made.

First of all is the notion that all partisanship is inherently bad, and that we need a chamber full of independents to somehow get away from politics. There are numerous problems with the underlying assumptions, the first of which is that even if you had a chamber full of 105 independents, you would not be free of ideological leanings or the development of factions that would become de facto parties in their own right. The other is that it fails to actually grasp the necessity of the roles of government and opposition within a Westminster system, and the parts that they play. As it stands, the Senate is largely a less partisan chamber than the Commons is, and while it’s true that it is currently a more partisan body than it tends to be typically, that has in large part to do with the fact that a large percentage of its membership is still relatively new, with a high volume of turnover over the past five years. Remember that it takes around three years for Senators to get up to speed with their roles, and part of that learning curve is the degree of independence that they enjoy. Many of the newer Conservatives Senators still labour under the impression that they can be whipped by the Prime Minister because they are somehow beholden to him. They aren’t, and some of them have started to take those lessons and are breaking ranks slowly but surely. This process always accelerates once a leadership contest happens and the Prime Minister who appointed them is no longer in charge. That the Chamber is at a higher tide of partisan sentiment is not a sufficiently compelling enough excuse to declare the whole body somehow illegitimate.

The most important thing overlooked by these kinds of appointment reform, however, is the issue of accountability. The problem with handing over the selection of senators to an independent body, be it an appointments commission or the membership of the Order of Canada, is that they cannot be held to account for bad appointments. This is a very important part of Responsible Government – that the PM that makes the appointments does so because he or she enjoys the confidence of the legislature. The PM can be judged on the quality of those appointments and if they are found wanting, the legislature can withdraw confidence. Likewise, the electorate can pass judgement when it comes time for an election. This is how accountability works in our system of government. But an independent commission cannot be held to account in the same manner, and the membership of the Order of Canada certainly cannot.

While it sounds all well and good to strip this power from a Prime Minister, there are consequences. We live in a system of Responsible Government, where accountability is an important feature. To dump that overboard as some kind of gesture toward a misguided notion of non-partisanship is an abdication of the role of the electorate in its accountability role, which further degrades our democracy – a move we should be resisting because it’s something that matters.