The Senate Renewal Is Missing Something

Prime Minister Trudeau has appointed 28 senators since March 18th, 2016. In doing so, he has achieved useful Senate reform without a time-consuming constitutional wrangle. But there is a missing ingredient in the recipe.

Trudeau created a process to which all Canadians can apply, and established an arms-length committee to vet the applicants.

This is a great improvement. Historically, both Conservatives and Liberals have based their choices primarily on partisan affiliation rather than policy acumen. It was a reward for the most loyal of the party faithful. Worse, the Senate crowned a hierarchy of prizes with others (port commissions, parole boards, crown corporations) awarded to lesser friends of the party in power.

The new senators are, in many ways, remarkably diverse. There are Canadians of Aboriginal and African descent; immigrants from a wide range of countries; representatives from varying faith traditions; one of the Anglophones is from Quebec and some of the Francophones are not. Fifteen of the 28 are female, beginning a move toward gender parity in the Senate.

Beyond that, the appointees are distinguished in their fields and many have held senior leadership positions. What could be missing?

One group almost totally ignored is people under 50. That is in part because a Senator typically holds the position until age 75. Thirty or forty years is much too long to be a senator. Could a new class of appointments could be made of people under 50 who serve for only five years?

Perhaps it could, but that might require constitutional change. There is another neglected demographic which presents no such obstacle.

In Canada—and elsewhere—the economy is made of two kinds of workers. There are those who produce goods and services that are consumed domestically and exported to other countries. These jobs are subject to continuous competitive pressure. These are the creators of wealth from which we all benefit.

There are others who fulfill other functions that are equally essential to a successful society, including civil servants, education and health professionals, workers in the social sector, artists, and many others.

The appointees are almost entirely from the second group.

For example, there are seven lawyers—three of them specializing in human rights, but none in commercial law. There are four retired civil servants, two environmentalists, and six who are academics or social workers.

But there is nobody from forestry, fisheries, or agriculture. There are no representatives from the extractive industries (yes, that includes oil and gas) which have traditionally been our biggest earner of export dollars.

There is nobody from manufacturing large or small, nobody from the construction industry, nobody from small business.

There is nobody from the fast-growing information and communications technologies sector. There is nobody from biotech.

There is a retired banker and a credit union executive. New senator Dan Christmas of Membertou has led that community into becoming a successful competitor in the private sector.

With those partial exceptions (bankers don’t make things, they just trade with our money or rent us other people’s) there are no real job-creating entrepreneurs in the group.

This matters. The Senate is poised to become a more creditable body and is likely to take itself more seriously. In the past, it has largely been willing to defer to the elected representatives. That may change as more and more of the senators are there on evident merit—it almost happened already on assisted dying legislation.

If there is a debate on climate change, who is going to explain the economic impact of shutting down the oil and gas industry? If there is a debate about growing GMO crops, who is going to explain what it is like to be a farmer competing on a world stage?

If there is a review of pharmaceutical regulation, who is going to describe the ways that rules can make life simple or difficult for businesses and consumers? If there is an examination of a possible trade agreement, who will explain the pluses and minuses for Canadian producers?

Those voices need to be heard—not just as presenting witnesses, but when debates are happening and votes counted.

The Senate will equally benefit from diversity of perspective on non-economic issues. A mining executive cares just as much or more about the quality of air and water in his town as an environmental expert from academia. Technology workers care more than anybody else about open internet access.

Because of Trudeau’s choices, the Senate is being usefully rehabilitated. But there is a gaping hole in the quest for diversity.

The Senate needs far more people from the wealth-producing part of the economy. That need should be addressed in the next round of appointments.


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