Conservative Senator Don Plett, former president of the Conservative party’s national council and a friend of Mike Duffy, spoke in the Senate this afternoon to explain his objections to the motions tabled by the government leader in the Senate to suspend Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin from the upper chamber without pay. Here is the prepared text of his remarks:
Honourable Senators, I rise today to speak to Senator Cowan’s motion.
September 15, 2009 was one of the proudest moments of my life, when I was sworn in to serve in the Senate of Canada, representing the province of Manitoba. I am proud of all the great work that has been accomplished by the Senate and am humbled to have the opportunity to serve in this great institution.
This past week, honourable Senators, has been one of the most difficult weeks of my life. I am actually considering voting against a motion from my leader for the first time in my political career.
I respect my leader, and I understand the motivation behind his motion. I believe his intentions are honourable. Over the past several months, we have had the institution of the Senate repeatedly called into question – an institution we are all proud of. I am saddened that our Prime Minister and our Government have had to endure criticism by the media and opposition parties and skepticism from the Canadian public for a situation that was not of their making.
I understand the desire to have a fresh start in the Senate; a clean slate. The problem here is that we are trying to oversimplify a complex issue with a quick fix at the expense of three individuals, before giving them the opportunity to defend themselves and before we have had the opportunity to examine all of the facts of the respective cases.
We are dealing with the future of three Senators, three of our colleagues. And as the leader of the opposition put it, “we will be stripping them of everything except the title of Senator”.
This is, at the very least, premature.
As Honourable Senators know, I am not a lawyer. Senator Carignan stated his case as to the power of this chamber. We have heard that the Senate is in fact its own master. However, Honourable Senators, just because something is within our rights, does not make it the right thing to do.
I am not here to defend the wrongdoing of any Senator. I am a Conservative. I am a Conservative, first and foremost, because I believe in the principles of fairness and justice.
And, this is the Senate of Canada. In Canada, we enjoy certain rights and freedoms. Most importantly we have the right to due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Senator Carignan pointed out that the presumption of innocence is a right afforded in a criminal investigation, but it is also a fundamental principle that guides our democracy, one that I would like to think guides the direction of the chamber of sober second thought.
Our committee of Internal Economy sent these matters to the RCMP for further investigation, and now, all of a sudden, we are going to find them guilty and apply sanctions before we have let the police do their work?
If we had not sent this to the RCMP, I could understand how we could feel it was our obligation to propose sanctions, once we had allowed for due process. If we felt that we had enough information and all the facts, this likely would never have been sent to the RCMP in the first place. Now, we are putting any chance of a fair investigation or future trial in serious jeopardy.
We would be finding our colleagues guilty before they have even been charged.
Senator Cowan, The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, rightfully said, and I quote: “whether charges are or are not laid, whether a court convicts or acquits any accused person – the Senate will always have the right to consider sanctions in accordance with and to uphold our own standards. Those standards are completely different from the Criminal Code. The burden of proof, the rules of evidence, the witnesses to be heard – these are all utterly different, reflecting the fundamental differences between the Senate and a criminal proceeding. But one thing that is common to both is the need to respect fundamental principles of fairness, due process and the rule of law. That can never change.” UNQUOTE.
Senator Cowan has moved a subsidiary motion, which says: In the event that we will not be able to reach such a consensus, this motion be referred to our Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament for consideration, that the Senators in question be invited to appear, and in light of the public interest in this matter, the proceedings be televised.
Although this might give our colleagues the opportunity to defend themselves and I am considering supporting this motion, I do have some serious reservations.
This is a committee that would be appointed by the two leaders in the Senate. That does not necessarily make this committee non-partisan. I might be more supportive of an elected committee or an external and independent committee, so that we do not run into the same issues of potential bias that occurred in the internal economy hearing.
Senator Wallin pointed out in her speech the importance of “the right to an open-minded jury”. I am not confident that this motion will allow for that.
Secondly, if a committee such as this is formed, clearly there need to be time limits set in place, so that these matters can be brought to a conclusion in a fair and timely manner for all concerned.
I am not yet convinced that I can support Senator Cowan’s motion, but I cannot support my leader’s motion without amendments.
When I was first appointed to the Senate, I asked an official in finance, “What qualifies as Senate business?” He told me, “Senator, whatever you deem to be Senate business is Senate business.” I said at that time, this is wrong. I have been lobbying and advocating since my appointment for clearer rules and a code of conduct in the Senate. In a reasonable institution, a code of conduct with disciplinary sanctions would be clearly outlined.
We have had other parliamentarians, including some Senators in the past year, who have had to repay improperly claimed expenses. No sanctions were considered. We have not set a bar. We do not have a set of rules that outline that a specific amount of money allegedly owed or a specific number of errors would result in a specific penalty. We are simply imposing sanctions. Very serious sanctions.
Not only are these motions unprecedented in Canadian history, but in passing them, we would be setting a very dangerous precedent that any parliamentarian could be subjected to, should their expenses or conduct be called into question. We would be subjecting our colleagues to similar sanctions before they have had the opportunity to properly make their case. With no historical context for this and with no bar set, we are setting a precedent, that any member of this chamber could be expelled because they are perceived to be an irritant or an annoyance, or even as Senator Segal suggested, “unpopular”.
We have had numerous legal opinions come to light during this debate. As I stated before, I am not a lawyer. However, I had lunch with a legal expert after this motion was introduced, and asked for his opinion on an appropriate course of action. He said, without hesitation, that when an investigation is going on, it is inappropriate to take action. If an individual has been charged with something, then suspension with pay would be appropriate. If the individual has been convicted or indicted, then, and only then would it be appropriate to impose sanctions, which in this case, would be suspension without pay. I find this to be a fair and reasonable approach and, quite frankly, I find it hard to argue with.
Senator Dallaire stated in the chamber that he comes from such an organization, where a disciplinary management system is in place. When an individual is convicted of something, that individual is dismissed. The individual does not lose his or her salary, only the responsibilities. And he rightly said: “that is a significant punishment”.
And, as many of you know, Toronto police officer, James Forcillo, has been charged with second degree murder of Sammy Yatim. Officer Forcillo has been suspended, by the Toronto Police, with full pay. Again, this is an individual charged with murder.
Honourable colleagues, we need to consider other options, options like suspension with pay, or options that would allow them to maintain their benefits, at least until we know if a crime has been committed.
We are not only suggesting to suspend without pay, we are doing it before a single charge has been laid. We would be finding these Senators guilty, before giving them a fair trial. Senator Wallin was invited to an internal economy committee meeting, where the witnesses were her accusers and Senator Wallin was afforded no more consideration than any of the other Senators on the committee. Neither she, nor her lawyer, were allowed to present their case. She was never asked to be a witness at an internal economy committee meeting and was only able to speak if the chair recognized her to ask a question.
Senator Carignan has justified this motion by using two cases of so-called precedence. The first being Senator Andrew Thompson. In this case Senator Thompson was suspended for chronic absenteeism. He was given the opportunity to come and defend himself, but chose not to do so. This is a Senator who clearly did not want to be a part of the Senate anymore and eventually they stopped his pay.
To use this as precedence is a bit of a stretch, as the attendance records of these three senators demonstrate their commitment to this chamber. Not to mention, they have made themselves available to come here to defend themselves.
The second case used was the House of Lords. Senator Carignan cites that three members of the House of Lords were suspended for an excessive spending scandal. I find it crucial to point out that members of the House of Lords are, in fact, not paid any renumeration for their services. We cannot make a direct comparison in a case where the misspending largely exceeds anything we are dealing with here, and where the penalties are so drastically different. In the case of the House of Lords, nobody’s livelihood was threatened, nobody’s medical benefits were taken away. To prematurely remove the medical benefits of a cancer survivor, a heart patient and a father of young children before allowing due process to run it’s course is, in my opinion, unconscionable.
And, most importantly, to quote Senator Segal, in reference to the House of Lords: “They decided to take a good, hard look case by case. Nobody suggested that you bring in one motion with the same wording for every individual as if they are all the same and as if the problems with which they were associated, fairly or unfairly, were of the same proportionality.”
Honourable Senators, the case with the House of Lords fails to serve as a precedent for this motion.
I would like to personally thank my leader Senator Carignan for not making this a government motion, and for respecting my right to vote my conscience on this very important issue. I can take solace in the fact that I am not voting against my government.
I believe this motion came as a result of the belief that “Canadians are angry”. Honourable Senators, Canadians understand and appreciate the principles of the rule of law and due process. The ONLY correspondence I have received from Canadians, since this motion was introduced, is to respect the rule of law and to not let politics get in the way of doing the right thing. We are accountable to Canadians and we are accountable to the principles of fairness and justice. We cannot, honourable Senators, make this a political issue and vote based on political expediency.
My father introduced me to the world of politics at the young age of 15. He counselled and mentored me. He was a Conservative all his life. But first and foremost, he was a man of ethics and integrity. He taught me not to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing. He taught me to vote my conscience.
Honourable Senators, I ask you. Please, do the right thing.