Politics sometimes can be exciting in the Other Place

Upper House is cruising for a clash with Commons over Accountability Act

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The Gazette, Friday, November 10, 2006

Down the hall in the Senate, they conduct their parliamentary affairs at a rather more leisurely and decidedly more civilized pace than do their colleagues in the House of Commons.

As much as the House is all sound and fury, a theatre of the absurd, the Senate's question period is sedate, well mannered and usually good-humoured.

Typically, on Wednesday afternoon, Liberal Senator Francis Fox was asking Public Works Minister Michael Fortier about any plans for redeveloping the Montreal waterfront. Fortier replied, with a touch of self-importance "that I am the minister of public works and government services for the entire country, not just Montreal."

To which Fox adroitly replied: "We have had the pleasure of hearing the melodious voice of the minister of public works and government services telling us about his development plans for Montreal and other regions."

Senators can often be heard pleading a favourite cause. With Fox, a former chairperson of Montreal International and co-chairperson of a commission on the Montreal waterfront, it is the economic development of Montreal. With Jerry Grafstein, Liberal advertising guru of the Trudeau era, it is increasing the minimum wage "to alleviate the plight of the working poor in this country."

Grafstein added: "I have been equally critical of my own government in Ontario."

"Heartless!" shouted Conservative Senator Hugh Segal from the Tory side of the Red Chamber.

"Which is a Liberal government," Grafstein concluded.

"Heartless!" Segal repeated. In the Senate, this is what passes for heckling.

The government leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, replied that Grafstein, "did underscore a serious question. I will make every attempt to get a serious answer to the question."

LeBreton is nobody's lady. At 66, she has worked for every Tory leader since John Diefenbaker. She ran the appointments secretariat for Brian Mulroney, who as he was leaving office, put her in the Senate, where she was often a lone defender of his reputation during the Airbus frame-up. Initially cool to the idea of the Progressive Conservatives merging with the Canadian Alliance, and even cooler to the idea of Stephen Harper as leader, she has since become a member of the prime minister's close circle of advisers.

Harper asked her aboard his campaign plane last year, and soon came to rely on her calming presence and institutional memory. When he named her to cabinet as Senate leader, he also appointed her to the Priorities and Planning Committee, the 11-member inner cabinet.

LeBreton, whose family motto could well be Never Trust the Liberals, is heading to a major confrontation with the Grits over their foot-dragging on the Accountability Act, the government's signature piece of legislation.

The Senate got the bill from the House on June 27, and, as of Wednesday afternoon, honourable senators were still debating it on third reading. And then the Liberal majority in the Senate was going to send it back to the House with over 100 amendments, effectively gutting the bill.

Just a listing of the amendments took up six pages in Wednesday's Senate Hansard. The Senate committee sat into the summer, and heard 158 witnesses through October, many of whom pointed out that in the process of cleaning up the village of Ottawa, the Conservative roundheads could well burn it down.

The Liberals also have a hidden agenda - if they can run out the clock on 2006, then they can raise money in 2007 under the less stringent campaign finance rules of Bill C-24, which permits donations to parties and candidates of up to $5,400. The Accountability Act would limit donations to $1,000 each to parties and $1,000 to candidates. That's all parties and all candidates. The Liberals' fundraising has been hampered by donations to their leadership campaign, with prospective donors quite properly telling the party they give at the office.

The delay in the Accountability Act has left Harper fuming about the unelected Senate thwarting the will of the voters. Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk was on her feet the other day quoting Sir John A. Macdonald on the role of the Senate in "preventing any hasty or ill-considered legislation which may come from (the House), but will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people."

Who said nothing ever happens in the Senate? There are days when it's both more entertaining, and more informative, than the House.

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