Since May, the furore regarding the behaviour of four Canadian Senators has been building across the country as new revelations about the misuse of public funds fuel more negative comments about the Senate and the people who work there. The reaction from politicians, political experts and the general public has been consistent, revealing a strong underlying distrust of the institution.
Interestingly, while there has been a vigorous debate about ways to reform the Senate, there have been only limited calls for a serious overhaul to the appointment process that has produced the current crop of Senators who will serve until they are 75 years of age.
Currently, Senators are appointed by the government of the day and regional representation is the key determinant. In this regard, the prime minister has the sole power to recommend a senatorial appointment to the Governor General and the government has the authority to make these appointments on whatever basis it deems appropriate. There is no application process nor is there an opportunity for Parliament to vet or confirm an appointment.
Given that there have been so many accusations of malfeasance among newly appointed Senators, perhaps this might be a good time to look at the criteria and processes currently being used to appoint Senators and other Governor in Council appointees.
One place to find some inspiration is in the United Kingdom, where the government and other interested parties have been experimenting with novel approaches to ensuring qualified individuals populate the talent pool of potential candidates. Two recent publications from the Institute for Government on the appointment of permanent secretaries (deputy ministers) and the role of Parliament in public appointments give some perspectives on where the U.K. is going in its efforts to improve its appointment process at the political and bureaucratic level. Both studies highlight the need for posting qualifications for the jobs and an explicit process for the appointment that is well understood in Parliament and in the public sphere.
Most relevant are the measures that were taken following the U.K. 2010 general election. At that time, the newly formed coalition government agreed to outline provisions for a mainly elected Upper House. According to the model that emerged, the reformed House of Lords would have 300 members of which 240 are “Elected Members” and 60 appointed as “Independent Members.” The Elected Members would serve a single, non-renewable term of 15 years and the elections would take place at the same time as elections to the House of Commons. The Independent Members would be appointed by the Queen, based on recommendations from the prime minister acting on the advice of an Appointments Commission.
The name for the Appointments Commission has a familiar ring to Canadian ears since it is similar in design to the organization that was originally to be an integral part of the newly elected Harper government’s Federal Accountability Act. In the U.K., the seven member Appointments Commission, which was formed in 2000, is a non-partisan, non-statutory, independent body that recommends people for appointment as non-party-political life peers and vets all nominations for membership in the House of Lords, including those nominated by the political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety. Its primary purpose is to ensure that there is greater transparency in the appointment process.
The Commission bases its recommendations of non-partisan life peers on seven criteria. The most important of these criteria are: the nominees must have a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life; the ability to make an effective contribution to the work of the House of Lords; time available to ensure that they can make a contribution; and a commitment to the highest standards of public life.
At this point, concerned Canadian citizens are calling for the abolition of the Senate or moving to an elected model. Perhaps the experiment taking place in the U.K. with its Appointments Commission might be a viable alternative that allows for the continuance of the Senate, but under a less partisan environment. Ironically, a merit-based appointed Senate might more closely approximate what the drafters of our Constitution had in mind in 1867. There is no guarantee that this approach would not have its own flaws, but it would be a significant improvement on the current situation.