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Citizens' Assembly-style Body May Be the Best Model for Senate Reform

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Release Date: September 8, 2004
The best route for Senate reform lies with a Citizens' Assembly-style review, rather than with the "Triple E" formula often touted by many observers, especially in the West. That is, if Senate reform is even appropriate or necessary.

"In particular, the plan of 'electing' Senators to the existing chamber would lead to a constitutional horror show," says the author, respected commentator Gordon Gibson.

Those conclusions are contained in a new paper, Challenges in Senate Reform: Conflicts of Interest, Unintended Consequences, New Possibilities, released today by the Fraser Institute.

"Many of the alleged failures of our political system for which Senate reform is claimed as a cure are in fact failures of the House of Commons or are built-in features of our Westminster style system," writes Gibson, Senior Fellow in Canadian Studies at the Institute.

Gibson argues that the Senate serves a useful and important role and that sometimes the Upper House is not given the respect it deserves. "With the exception of the power to choose the government, in terms of legislation and policy consideration the Senate is actually the more useful chamber," he points out.

Furthermore, fundamental reform could lead to unintended consequences: overhauling the Senate could lead to major problems with accountability and be a major impetus to centralization and big government.

Gibson acknowledges that the main goals of Senate reformers -- regional representation and checks and balances on the executive branch -- are important but that the best hope for progress in these areas lies in reform of the House of Commons, electoral reform, and decentralization. "Senate reform should not be ruled out but it is not a simple issue," says Gibson.

Truly significant change, of the sort desired by most reformers, will require constitutional amendment, something very difficult to achieve. Should the push for reform gain momentum, Gibson urges that attention be turned instead to the process currently underway in British Columbia where a Citizens' Assembly has undertaken a year-long review of electoral reform.

Gibson suggests that a similar model could be used to consider Senate reform. An independent, non-partisan assembly of randomly selected citizens would be asked to undertake a Senate review and make recommendations as to whether or not it should be reformed. Should a recommendation for reform be made, this will ultimately be put directly to voters through a national referendum and require the appropriate regional majorities.

A national Assembly for this purpose could be empowered either by the central government or by the Council of the Federation.

"A Citizens' Assembly could constitute a way around the difficulties of constitutional politics. But, for anything to happen at all, some sort of national consensus will have to be built out of this decidedly mixed situation," he concludes.