By PATRICK HUNTER
Do you remember that scene from the movie, “Moonstruck”, in which theChercharacter slapped the Nicholas Cage character and said: “Snap out of it”? Well, this is my imaginary wakeup call if you are one of those who were beginning to feel sympathy for the three senators who are facing disciplinary action.
At the beginning of the week, news emerged that the disciplinary motion being debated may be softened somewhat to ease back on the penalties the senators would face if the motions passed. The original disciplinary action would impose a suspension without pay or benefits.
Two of the senators, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallen, in their statements during the debate on the motion, said that due to their health, the suspension of their pay and benefits would impose a hardship.
Let me point out, first of all, that these people are members of a very exclusive club. It is the kind of club whose members are appointed, not elected or otherwise popularly chosen, by the prime minister of the day. This club whose function, reputedly, is to provide sober second thought as the upper house of parliament, has been the subject of much debate questioning its relevancy and its usefulness to the governing of the country. Only Liberals and Conservatives have had the dubious distinction of making senate appointments. The current official opposition, the New Democrats, have had a long-standing policy calling for the abolition of this body. It costs a lot of money for its upkeep; its members are appointed essentially for life (until age 75), and its value is still the subject of much debate.
The Senate rarely initiates legislation, and its review of legislation passed by the House of Commons is largely a formality that is marginal at best. Its committees have conducted hearings and produced reports which, for the most part, are ignored.
So, the Senate has long been viewed as reward for those faithful to the governing party.
As I noted in an earlier column, it is significant that two of the embattled senators are former high-profile journalists. At the time I mused that it is somewhat curious that they should be the ones who are caught up in high-spending scandals. One would have thought that they, more than anyone else, would have been more circumspect in their performance and spending, knowing that the media would likely be watching them carefully. One could therefore speculate that there is much more to this story.
Senator Wallen probably gave us one of biggest not-so-subtle hints in her remarks during the debate. She referred to her outspokenness in caucus which she cites as a cause for concern and hence one of the reasons she has been, as it were, thrown under the bus.
We may never know what goes on in caucus as those deliberations are usually confidential. But we have seen indications that the tight grip that Harper has on his caucus has rarely tolerated open dissent. It is not a wild imagining that from time to time those dissensions have strained at the seams and have leaked out. Some members of the caucus have been “released” from their caucus memberships as a result of those seam-breaking incidents.
Harper appointed both Duffy and Wallen to the Senate. Both have been high-profiled campaigners for the Conservatives. Now both are sitting as independent senators battered and bruised. There is more here than meets the eye, and it probably has much to do with Harper’s style of governing.
As an aside, Peter Kent was also a high profile journalist who served as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and as Minister of the Environment. Earlier this yearKenttook himself out of cabinet – asking the Prime Minister not to appoint him to a post in the big shuffle. It was an unusual move particularly because it was such a public request. I don’t want to read too much into it, but it is a reason to wonder if there is a pattern here.
Another question worth asking is whether these are the initial salvos in the disintegration of the Conservative Party? All political parties go through a period of what may be euphemistically called “renewal”. The leadership is challenged and often forced to step aside for new blood. We have seen this with the Liberal Party which has seen a revolving door of leaders since Jean Chretien’s departure.
At the upcoming convention of the Conservative Party, there will be the usual rallying in support of Harper for the television lights and cameras. Those lights and cameras may not get to see what is going on in mini-caucuses where dissatisfaction may abound. In all likelihood, the next election may be the last with Harper as leader.
So, weep not for the Senate elite. Their bread is buttered at the taxpayers’ expense. But, I suppose, it is part of the price of democracy, or so they would have us believe.