Randomly Selected Assembly Would Be a DisasterPublished on 14 December 2016 Publications by Senator Paul Massicotte
Who wants to play hockey for Team Canada at the next Olympics? Who knows — there could be plenty of openings if the NHL won’t let its players take part in the 2018 Winter Games. But imagine if Team Canada just randomly grabbed people from the lineup at Tim Hortons for its Olympic hockey squad. The results would obviously be disastrous. So, why would we expect anything better if we replaced the Senate with an assembly of citizens picked at random?
Forget skill and hard work — this may be your lucky year if your name is drawn from a hat.
Sounds silly, right?
Last month, McGill University professor Arash Abizadeh used the same logic as he wrote a piece on how the Senate ought to be replaced by an assembly of randomly selected citizens. I followed up by joining the professor and several others in a public forum to discuss the idea.
I understand how this might make for a punchy media story or a flight of fancy from a bright and serious academic but it’s still an idea with scarce grounding in actual policy-making. The reality, however, of drafting and passing legislation is something that deeply affects Canadians and should not be left to chance.
Professor Abizadeh argues that random citizen assemblies have previously been remarkably successful in other jurisdictions, citing the examples of previous voting reform assemblies in Ontario and British Columbia. The professor fails to mention, however, that voters rejected their proposed solutions in referenda.
This might be considered a success for a political scientist, looking at it from the ivory tower of academia, but looks more like a waste of time and money if you’re looking at it from Parliament, where real-world decisions are made that affect real Canadians.
And therein lies the hard truth. Modernizing governance is not the same thing as experimenting. Good governance is not just about process — it’s also about results.
Filling the Upper Chamber with people lacking political or legislative experience would simply increase the burden on the surrounding bureaucracy to provide procedural and substantive support. Just take a peek at any number of bills under consideration for a taste of what complexity lies in legislation.
This would inevitably translate into long delays, increased costs, and consolidated power in the hands of the technocrats who assist the assembly.
Furthermore, Senate appointments have been used to ensure underrepresented communities a voice in Parliament. What if the random sortation process Professor Abizadeh is championing resulted in no Indigenous Canadians drawn that year? What if no visible minorities won the citizen assembly lottery? Where’s the legitimacy in that? Randomness only leads to representativeness when the number of draws is immense.
On the other hand, instead of filling the Upper Chamber with those underrepresented Canadians in need of a stronger voice, Professor Abizadeh himself acknowledges that sortation would inevitably lead to what he describes as “lunatics, racists and misogynists” making it in — there’s no solving the “Donald Trump problem” as he puts it.
In fact, by strengthening the democratic mandate of the Upper Chamber while weakening moderation of its members, you’re setting the stage for an inevitable confrontation between our two chambers of Parliament.
In short, an Athenian sortation model — which was hardly effective in Antiquity — would simply not work in an era of universal franchise, instant communication and larger, complex polities.
While the Senate is undergoing greater changes than it has ever seen before during its century-and-a-half of history — and all without opening up the Constitution — we must be cautious not to damage the remarkable institutions we’ve inherited.
Amid the excitement some may wish to push the pedal a little too hard.