Nov 2, 2015

Will proposed new Senators be an aristocracy of the distinguished?


Ruth Ellen Brosseau is a Member of Parliament against the odds. A single mother and the assistant manager of a pub, she was elected in 2011, as Wikipedia describes her, as a “paper candidate” because the NDP had no viable nominee in the riding.” But here’s the thing. She worked hard, she impressed her constituents and was re-elected in 2015.

Then there is Ralph Goodale. People forget he was first elected at the age of 24. He went on to play key roles in both the Saskatchewan and federal Liberal parties. He was appointed Canada’s Finance Minister in 2003. He will play a critical role in the new Liberal government in Canada.

Other than youthful beginnings, what do Brosseau and Goodale have in common? Neither would have met the standard that will be set for the choice of Senators currently being discussed. They were just not “quality” people.

John Ibbitson has researched the plans and reports on his findings in the Globe and Mail. Ibbitson says new Senate appointments will be based on “merit” chosen by “a non-partisan panel of distinguished Canadians” after talking to a similarly distinguished panel from the relevant province. The Prime Minister would then choose from a shortlist.

Ibbitson editorializes that the nominations should come from Main Street as well as Bay Street, from the shop floor as well as the board room. How likely is that to happen? The distinguished folk, the “quality” folk on these panels will choose the people who meet their own high standards, all the better to protect us of course.

The Senate in Canada still has real powers. With its gender, age and property owning limits it was created in 1867 as a bulwark against democracy. Back then the unelected Senate, filled with “quality” people could prevent any democratic excesses that might arise from elections.

How does that differ from the “distinguished” Canadians the new proposal suggests? While they would bring their “distinguished” values to the Senate, would they be our values? And what room would there be for the young Goodales and Brosseaus who might actually represent the wishes of the people who surround them? What room would there be for assistant pub managers and shop stewards?

I am not fond of the current Senate. Few people are. I don’t know what the answer is but I do not believe it is the creation of a new aristocracy of the “distinguished.”

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