The best idea I've seen yet about what to to do with our constitutional albatross, the Senate, short of abolishing it, appeared in a recent issue of The Tyee. The article suggests random selection of "ordinary citizens to sit as senators for a limited period of time (perhaps one or two years)." The authors suggest that "with proper support and access to expert opinion, ordinary citizens can tackle complex policy problems. A randomly selected Senate would produce an assembly that is representative of the Canadian population in all its diversity."
The Tyee is talking about a citizens' assembly chosen by lot, a system of direct democracy known as sortition. Sortition was used extensively by the Athenian Greeks who had a certain distrust of elections. It is in fact more democratic than elections and a great deal more representative than the current Senate, or the House of Commons for that matter.
Free of any grip of party loyalty, allowed to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, participants in an assembly are willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. The competitive, adversarial nature of conventional party politics is sharply reduced. By bringing people of all sorts together, assemblies create a more consensual, inclusive democracy as opposed to the hostile, partisan, macho democracy of party politics. In effect, they take the “politics” out of decision-making.
With the participants brought together as equals, assemblies eliminate social and financial inequality. The CEO of a large corporation sits down with the welfare mother; they can get to know each other and understand each other’s views and problems. They can conclude the issues under discussion while building bridges for the future. They escape the isolation that leads to people obsessing on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their own prejudices.
Particularly important in assemblies is the dialogue between participants. Good talk—vigorous, well-informed conversation, especially debate with those whose views differ from one’s own—remains a major ingredient of healthy democracy. It not only ensures better decision-making, it engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.
There are two essentials for a sound assembly: random selection to ensure that the assembly is truly the people in microcosm, and mandatory attendance to ensure all the people are heard. Selection would still be distorted by Senate constitutional requirements such as regional representation, so unfortunately perfection would elude us.
Citizens would be selected like juries are now, providing a constant rotation. Every citizen would share the prospect of becoming a senator. The possibility would keep people on their democratic toes and create a more aware and confident citizenry. And the sober second thought the Senate was designed to provide would be provided by the people themselves.