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Opinion: Replace Senate with Randomly Selected Citizen Assembly

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

[Op-ed originally published in Montreal Gazette Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016]

Let's replace Canada's Senate with a randomly selected citizen assembly

Canada’s Senate is a political quagmire. Critics say it’s undemocratic. Many argue only an elected Senate could legitimately veto legislation.

But defenders of the appointed Senate say elections would undermine the whole point of a second legislative chamber. The Senate has two purposes: to act as a deliberative body that reviews bills from the House of Commons for mistakes; and to protect dissent and Canada’s regions and minorities by acting as a check on House majorities and cabinet. These functions depend on the Senate’s relative independence from strategic electoral and partisan pressures. Because Senators are not worried about getting re-elected, they are free to deliberate conscientiously, and can oppose even their own party without worrying they’ll be punished by party bosses.

So it looks like we face a choice: a Senate that’s either democratic but ineffective, or effective but undemocratic.

It’s a false choice: We can have our cake and eat it too. That’s because democracy does not require elections. In fact, until quite recently, democracy was primarily associated not with elections, but with lottery. This is how most political offices were filled where democracy was born, in ancient Athens — by randomly choosing from among citizens willing to serve. (We still do this with juries.)

Lottery is the quintessentially democratic way of choosing representatives because it’s the great equalizer: each citizen has an equal prospect of being selected. A randomly selected citizen assembly would be a miniature portrait of Canadians. Its deliberations and decisions would reflect what Canadians themselves would have done if they had put in the time and effort.

A randomly selected chamber would also retain many of the appointed Senate’s benefits. Its members would be free from strategic electoral and partisan concerns. They could deliberate conscientiously. They could check House majorities and cabinet without fear of reprisal.

We can even put icing on our cake. Not only would a citizen assembly itself be democratic, it would also shore up the democratic legitimacy of Canada’s parliamentary system as a whole. Elections treat Canadians as political equals insofar as we all have an equal right to vote. But elections don’t treat us as equals when it comes to our prospects for being elected. Unlike lotteries, elections favour candidates with the resources to win, which is why they produce an assembly of elites. By holding the Commons accountable, a citizen assembly could lend its democratic imprimatur to legislation stemming from our inegalitarian elected chamber.

But wouldn’t a citizen assembly be incompetent? Experience suggests otherwise. Canadians have used citizen assemblies twice before, in British Columbia and Ontario, to make decisions about voting systems. Political scientists have studied both cases. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice and heard competing arguments, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decisions were extremely competent and reasonable. No surprise: it’s well known to social scientists that, under the right conditions, there’s intelligence in numbers. An assembly of regular but diverse decision-makers is often more intelligent than a lone genius or homogeneous group of experts.

What about lunatics? What if a racist misogynist spewing hatred, cheering sexual assault and inciting people to violence were randomly selected? Unfortunately, there’s no full protection against the Donald Trump problem. Elections have already gotten us there, more than once. But in a large assembly, the random lunatic won’t win a following, and the extremist will be balanced by the others.

Canada is already a pioneer in randomly selected citizen assemblies. If the moment arrives for constitutional reform of the Senate, we ought to reconstitute it as a randomly selected citizen assembly. It would be effective, equal, impartial, representative of Canadians and democratic.

Photo Credit: Saffron Blaze

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