Op-ed piece calling for a sortitioned Canadian Senate

Claudia Chwalisz writes in The Globe and Mail:

Replace this archaic institution with a citizens’ senate

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.

Granted that this is only an op-ed piece, but I have to admit I am rather amazed that the idea of a sortitionally-selected federal legislature is making it so rapidly into the mainstream.

6 Responses

  1. When Barnett and Carty published their call for an allotted House of Lords in 1998 (The Athenian Option), it struck me that they had it the wrong way round (the lower house appointed by an “aristocratic” method, along with a popular upper house), but with hindsight this is beginning to look like a more workable model, that fits in well with Naomi’s proposal for combining election and sortition. In terms of the UK constitution, this would mean reverting to the constitutional principle whereby the Lords could veto bills originating in the Commons. Given that nobody really knows what the point of the upper house is or its legitimising principle, I think we might well be pushing at an open door. In terms of the original republican bicameral model I guess the only difference is the inversion of the terminology — in fact calling the people’s house the Senate might well be appropriate for the demotic age. I think even Harrington might well approve.

    If the two groups met in plenary this would also have the effect of obliging the lower house to become a lot more deliberative (rather than MPs just turning up when the division bell is rung). However, a better alternative would be to retain the advocacy rights of the existing members of the Lords but reserve the vote for the allotted members. It strikes me this would be an unique combination of the two kinds of political wisdom — sophia and phronesis. The deliberative standards of the Lords are much higher than the Commons and it would be a real tragedy to sacrifice that (my original advocacy model was based on the existing membership of the House of Lords). No doubt the allotted members would be attentive to the partisan slugfest occurring in “the other place”, but would also benefit from the grown up deliberation of the Senators. Who could object to such a scheme?

    It would be nice to invite Claudia to participate on this forum, as sortition appears to be her principal research interest.


  2. Keith,
    I do find it a bit interesting you don’t mind having life peers serve as advocates but object to having allotted advocates in parallel with elected advocates. The quality of the exchange in the Lords seems to support the arguments previously offered by Terry regarding the deleterious effects of electoral pressures on deliberation quality. And of course neither life peers nor allotted advocates have ex post accountability beyond criminal prosecution.

    I can see a role for a mixed advocacy with allotted, appointed, and elected advocates sitting alongside each other and doing the same basic job. But I’d favor having the senior members of the civil service hold advocacy powers automatically (in place of dedicated appointed members), thus maximizing the chances they will bring some relevant expert knowledge to the table.


  3. Also, it is striking how ideal conventional Westminister systems are for our purposes. Their upper houses are usually unpopular retirement homes for older politicians. A switch to sortition/stochation is by far and away the most defensible reform and the limited experience we have with it is of little consequence given the limited role of upper houses. Allowing bills to be passed in a joint session with introduction powers being restricted to ministers is absolutely something the top two parties should support because it would make minority governments much more feasible. From there it’s a small step to the sort of thing Keith and I have been discussing for a while now. And independent agencies have been growing at the expense of the cabinet for a long time. It seems to me that putting a nonpartisan step between elections and policy should accelerate this transfer of powers. The old cabinet may end up being left behind… a new addition to the “dignified” portion of the British constitution. This would certainly generate far less opposition than pushing to abolish it outright in a single step.


  4. Naomi,

    >I do find it a bit interesting you don’t mind having life peers serve as advocates but object to having allotted advocates in parallel with elected advocates.

    I’m not sure that I do any more. My original proposal (in The Party’s Over and A People’s Parliament) was for an advocacy model based on the House of Lords but prioritising (rather vaguely) the selection criteria of expertise, merit and (non-partisan) public service. Indeed the term I used for members of the house was Lords Advocate. My original model was unicameral — elected advocates proposing, Lords Advocate opposing and a stochastic sample of the people disposing.

    But I’m now prepared to admit defeat — you have convinced me of the need for a bicameral system. The lower house would largely function as present, the only change being an increased role for direct-democratic initiative (in which the winners of the public votation would present their proposals in person). The upper house (Senate) would become a house of veto (or revise-and-resubmit), with the discursive element provided by the Lords Advocate and voting rights restricted to a large stochastic jury selected by lot. One thing I’m still not clear of is regarding proposing advocates — it might make more sense for the argument to be presented by the victorious party/ies from the lower house, in which case the Lords Advocate would provide the opposition. The danger in having all advocacy provided endogenously would be that the Lords might then become unduly partisan, and it might be better to quarantine that to “the other place”. Bearing in mind that the jury in the Senate would be a stochastic sample of the original majority in the country backing the new law, this prioritises the democratic element (although Terry and Yoram would disagree, owing to their definition of anything other than sortition as elitist) and the Lords Advocate would have their work cut out to defeat the bill.

    Such a bicameral solution would be theoretically coherent (each house having its own distinctive rationale) and would fit with most of the other proposals for the introduction of sortition (Chwalisz, Barnett and Carty, Callenbach and Phillips, O’Leary etc). The only difference is that the latter two books also grant the right of initiative to the Senate, but I think we agree that anything that disallows all citizens from having some say in the laws that govern them is undemocratic. I also agree this would be pragmatically acceptable as the turkeys (elected politicians) would not have to vote for Christmas and nobody really knows what the point of the upper house is anyway.

    Where you still have to convince me is regarding the merits of the fused Westminster system — my preference is still for a complete separation between the legislative and administrative powers, with the latter appointed on merit alone. But I’m intrigued by your Bagehottian argument — that the cabinet would end up on the dignified side of the constitution, usurped by the growth of independent agencies. Could you explain that more?


  5. Keith,
    Having the supporters and opponents of proposals be selected in different ways makes me a uneasy. Asymmetry in the advocacy process would be very bad. We wouldn’t know if we’ve introduced a systemic bias until after the reforms were already in place. This could cause problems down the road and conceivably make backtracking difficult. Symmetry is a safer bet. That said, I do understand your concerns.

    In any case it amuses me that we seem to have moved in opposite directions on uni/bicameralism. I’d like to see a mixed member unicameral system. Some elected, others drawn by lot, and a modest number of members having seats by virtue of holding executive office with powers being divided between the members of the three groups. The elected members would hold introduction/speech powers. The allotted members would vote. And the appointed executives would wield delegated powers as well as introduction/speech powers.

    Perhaps the best term to use would be qualified unicameralism, though this is very different from the qualified unicameralism of the Storting. There are plenty of examples of legislatures where there are multiple houses—selected in different ways—that meet separately for some functions and jointly for others. Maybe that’s a bit closer to what I mean. Though there’s no dedicated term, as far as I know.

    The trouble with giving responsibilities to the majority in an elected house is that we would be depending on the majority of voters. It would not enough for lots of voters to do a good job of keeping track of politics. *Most* voters would have to do a good job. And they don’t have the time. Just as problematic is the need to avoid fragmentation. Depending on the allotted members to vote in place of the elected members blows this right out of the water. It’s completely novel and very exciting. There are plenty of highly fragmented legislatures (I believe Brazil’s has 22 parties) and their main problems stem from the need to bring all these different parties together to form a majority. And if the elected subset of the legislature is highly fragmented there will always be both supporters and opponents of any reasonable proposal in that same subset.

    Regarding the executive…
    It is not enough for policy directives to go down the chain of delegation from the legislature all the way to the street-level administration. “Facts on the ground” have to work their way back up as well. They’ll need to pass housekeeping proposals from time to time if nothing else and there’s really no line separating housekeeping and policy. There’s also no line separating legislative and executive matters either. Fully separating personnel risks introducing separation of purpose between executive and legislature. Furthermore, the senior members of the civil service represent a considerable pool of talent. I see no harm in letting them participate with full proposal rights. If they were appointed on merit what harm is there in also allowing them to participate in the legislative process? I can see objecting to the appointment of legislative partisans to executive office. But this is turned around the other way.

    If our proposals to reform the executive are to be enacted by policy jury, and defended against periodic attempts to return to the old system by further policy juries, we are *already* betting that merit appointment will be favored for practical and epistemic reasons by policy juries. If such juries are at the heart of the political system, then there is no problem. They should favor merit appointments when the opportunity arises, which would mean a progressively expanding role for the agencies. It would not surprise me if the natural result of the legislative reforms we’ve been discussing was the reduction of the PM all the way down to a ceremonial, celebrity figure with the various “efficient” executive entities nominally reporting to the PM and the other ministers just as the PM nominally reports to the monarch. Which might be perfect. The celebrity status of the office could make it a lightning rod for political ambition, perhaps protecting the “efficient” institutions from being excessively tainted by politics. If the cost is leaving a handful of practical powers with the cabinet, it might be a reasonable trade-off. Plus, the biggest reason I’ve been hesitant to embrace a fully appointed executive is due to an expected backlash which could threaten the whole slate of reforms. The key is to find the smallest and least objectionable change needed to make the natural course of constitutional evolution take us where we want to end up, rather than trying to justify the final (and very alien) product up front.


  6. Naomi,

    A lot to think about here — will ponder it over and come back to you at the weekend.


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