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The Senate chamber is seen Thursday April 24, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Senate chamber is seen Thursday April 24, 2014 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Claudia Chwalisz

Replace this archaic institution with a citizens’ senate Add to ...

With the expenses scandal and the unpopular Bill C-51 being passed, the Canadian Senate has recently come under fire from the New Democratic Party and the Greens.

After the Senate vote on C-51, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair tweeted, “The unelected, under investigation Senate just passed #C51. Canadians can count on an #NDP government to repeal this dangerous law. #Abolish.”

While the NDP has pledged to abolish the unelected, ever-growing institution for a long time, these recent events have reignited a new flame around the issue. With the party now leading in the polls, the chance of reform in the next Parliament is, for once, reasonable.

Yet, what’s less clear is with what, if anything, the Senate will be replaced? Does the party want Canada to become a unicameral system, with only one legislative body? It seems this is implied, as calling for “reform” would maintain the need for a second chamber.

While calling for unicameralism would be a mistake – it would reduce the government’s legitimacy due to lack of oversight – the more radical proposal of “abolition” leaves the path clearer toward true structural change that moves beyond tinkering at the edges (such as elected senators).

Why not replace the archaic institution with a citizens’ senate – a rotating group of randomly selected citizens that serve as a house of review? The random group could be stratified, to ensure representativeness of sex, age, race, socio-economic status and regional diversity, matching the makeup of Canadian society.

Nationally, women make up half of the population and visible minorities account for 23.3 per cent, according to a recent study about Canada’s diversity by Kai L. Chan. By contrast, women comprise 27.6 per cent of the House and Senate, while visible minorities make up a mere 12.3 per cent. Seventy-five out of 85 senators are 60 years of age or older. Forty one per cent of sitting senators are 70 or over.

Perhaps it’s time to update the archaic 19th-century institution to be more representative of Canada’s diversity, let alone to be reflective of the collaborative, interactive nature of the 21st century?

In a new Policy Network report launched next Wednesday, I detail 10 case studies of democratic innovations in Canada and other countries where the use of random selection of participants along with deliberation have proven successful. When people are given the time and the resources to make decisions, they show themselves to be extremely competent. Random selection also means that they have no political mandate; priorities are rebalanced away from re-election to the topics at hand.

For example, in the Netherlands, three days after municipal elections, 1,000 people from the community (600 randomly selected citizens, 100 employers, 50 politicians, 50 civil servants, 100 artists and 100 note takers) come together for a “G1000” citizens’ assembly. Together, they develop an agenda for the next governing term in the form of priorities and concrete project proposals.

Ireland recently held a constitutional convention with randomly selected citizens, politicians and experts.

In Australia, citizens’ juries and people’s panels are involved directly in making political decisions – whether it is developing a 10-year budget for Melbourne, or coming up with proposals to make South Australia more cycle-friendly.

Closer to home, there is currently a citizens’ assembly under way in Grandview Woodlands, Vancouver to develop a new town planning proposal that includes the voices of residents – both owners and renters.

Replacing the current Senate with a citizens’ senate would have many advantages. It would not impart any extra costs, as it wouldn’t add another branch to government. It would go a long way to reducing the elite bias in democracy today. Citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries in places around the world have shown that involving “ordinary” people without a partisan bias in deliberation drives a different, non-adversarial style of discourse. Research has also shown that better decisions are made when groups are more diverse – changing the sex, age and ethnic balance of the upper house would be good for democracy and good for effective policy-making.

With Senate reform back on the political agenda, Mr. Mulcair has an opportunity before him to propose radical changes that would vastly enhance Canada’s democracy, showing other countries around the world the way forward.

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