The Senate & Governor General

Canada has a Senate that is a weird hold-over from the 19th century, dominated by patronage appointments and spending scandals. We also have a head-of-state who is, oddly, appointed by our Prime Minister. And we have a constitutional amending formula that makes it almost impossible to do anything about these anachronistic oddities. Almost. We can make changes in how we use these institutions without necessarily going through the pain of constitutional amendment Here's my prescription: make the Senate a purely honourary body (members with no regular salary, no regular legislative role) composed of distinguished Canadians from any and all walks of life. The body would have only one or two official roles. First would be choosing Governors General. Perhaps secondarily confirming Supreme Court justices. And occasionally members could be tasked with an investigation or commission or something (in these cases Senators would get reasonable travel allowances and daily honoraria). Two problems would be solved this way 1) the Senate's role would be clarified, if limited; and, 2) the GG's potential conflict-of-interest with respect to the PM would be resolved. (If you don't think there's an issue here, consider how a more independent GG might have responded to a request to prorogue parliament to avoid a confidence motion). These reforms won't make Canada's democracy the envy of the world, but they could be achieved with relatively little fuss, and they would improve a weakness in a fundamental area. Oh, and ranked ballots too, please!


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  • commented 2015-07-12 17:47:14 -0400
    Great ideas. The senate and GG must be politically independent.
  • tagged this with favourite 2015-07-12 17:47:13 -0400
  • commented 2015-07-08 07:40:16 -0400
    Alright, James Wilson, fair enough, the Queen is our Head of State, and isn’t appointed by the PM. I know that but didn’t want to include an extra sentence or two acknowledging all these details in a suggestion I was “thumbing” on my phone. How exactly does this fact change the problem my suggestion is aiming at fixing?

    I’ll confess to being uncertain about where the threshold is for changing the Senates “legislative rules” but certainly many can be changed without a constitutional amendment. It may be possible for the Senate to be put on “auto-pilot” without such an amendment (e.g. all bills passed by the commons are “deemed to have passed the Senate” after some set period, unless explicitly taken up by the body).

    A bigger problem from my perspective is the regional representation probably can’t be changed without a full-scale, 100% provincial agreement, constitutional amendment. My ideal is that the Senate be as purely an honorary position as possible, so regional representation is a bit of a barrier, but probably not too much, so I can live with that.

    And c’mon, must we quibble over minutae? You really think we couldn’t work out a way to get Senators to Ottawa when necessary? Per diems, honoraria, travel allowances wouldn’t be possible? I’d eliminate regular annual salaries, but not reasonable set expense allowances for specific duties.

    I don’t believe some “Advisory Committee” is quite as free from political interference as you may. A Senate composed of distinguished Canadians (i.e. with many MANY fewer political hacks & pure patronage appointments) charged with the duty could be both more transparent & greatly more legitimate. And no, sending a list to London for the Queen to deal with is hardly an improvement for a sovereign country.

    As for the conflict of interest issue, the problem was that Ms Jean was appointed by a Liberal Prime Minister, and could have reasonably been charged with having partisan motives if she had denied the Conservative PM’s request. Whether she would have or not is a question we can’t answer, but there was clearly a problem with her perceived independence. More to the point, we can you not imagine a more serious crisis emerging (dead-heat election?) in which a GG’s overt political ties would make some (possibly optimal) solutions unnecessarily toxic?

    The Governor-General’s role is a significant safety valve. It’s not normally needed, but you want it to work well when it is. I believe the current appointment system is poorly designed and thereby has the potential to worsen any serious constitutional crisis that may emerge. Nothing you’ve said or suggested changes my mind (but you have made me wonder if we should append the words “or pedants” to the well-know web adage “Don’t feed the trolls”).
  • commented 2015-07-07 10:06:04 -0400
    “We also have a head-of-state who is, oddly, appointed by our Prime Minister”

    -The Queen is our Head of State and NOT appointed by the Prime Minister.

    “We can make changes in how we use these institutions without necessarily going through the pain of constitutional amendment Here’s my prescription: make the Senate a purely honourary body”

    -Eliminating the Senate’s legislative rules DOES require a constitutional amendment. Doing away with their salaries does not. However, you will only be handing the chamber over to those who can afford to go to Ottawa on a regular basis which seems to me to be a step backwards.

    “the GG’s potential conflict-of-interest with respect to the PM would be resolved.”

    -This issue has already been partially solved by the creation of the Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments which created a shortlist of candidates for the Prime Minister who then picked one to recommend to the Queen. It would be further improved if the Prime Minister simply sent the entire shortlist to the Queen unmodified and let Her Majesty choose from among them.

    “consider how a more independent GG might have responded to a request to prorogue parliament to avoid a confidence motion”

    -They most likely would have done the same thing. Remember, Harper did not recommend Michelle Jean for the position of Governor General, Martin did. If you take the time to look at the possible options the Governor General picked the most prudent one during the prorogation controversy.
  • tagged this with favourite 2015-07-06 23:38:46 -0400
  • published this page in Remedies • Canada 2015-07-06 16:54:15 -0400

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