There is a mythical entity—if you follow federal politics you’ve no doubt heard it mentioned in hushed tones—called “the Conservative base.” As the Senate expenses affair gyrates and hurtles in one unexpected direction after another, the base is being referenced quite a lot. Sen. Mike Duffy, for instance, claimed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper told him the real reason his housing allowance claims were problematic wasn’t because Duffy had broken any rules, it was because “the rules are inexplicable to our base.”
The embattled senator’s recollection of that testy exchange with Harper is open to question. But it stands to reason that the Prime Minister, and everyone who works for him, must be worried about what the party’s core supporters are making of the whole Senate mess. Yet in all the oratory expended on the controversy, uncommonly entertaining though much of it has been this week, nothing that sounded like a plausible voice of the base had been heard around Parliament Hill—until Sen. Don Plett stood in the Senate this afternoon to say his piece.
Plett is the owner of a plumbing supply business in Landmark, Man., and he looks and talks like he might well be. Don’t kid yourself, though. He’s also a battle-tested partisan operator, a past president of the Conservative party and onetime campaign manager for Vic Toews, the former Harper cabinet heavyweight and polarizing pillar of Manitoba’s right. He’s also reportedly a friend of Duffy, no minor detail in the context. For all that, Plett just doesn’t come off as that sort of insider. He exemplifies the style admired by Conservatives who so want to believe, even as their party’s run in power under Harper stretches on, that they will never succumb to the entitled mindset that they regard as the private preserve of the hated Liberals.
“I am a Conservative,” the father of four and and grandfather of seven said on the Senate floor by way of presenting his credentials. “I am a Conservative, first and foremost, because I believe in the principles of fairness and justice.” This might seem a strange way to define Conservatism. Isn’t it about, oh, small government or family values or something? But fairness, I think, is indeed what many Conservatives feel they stand for. They think Liberals and New Democrats are for fixing the game in favour of one group or another, one region or another, one set of cronies or another. Their party is supposed to be about the level playing field—fair and just.
Plett went on to apply this principle to the proposed motion, which is what the Senate is debating this evening, to suspend senators Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, all for various alleged violations of Senate expense and housing allowance rules. Now, the Conservative Senate leadership, with Harper’s full support, says the upper chamber has the right to discipline its members. But Plett contends, in a way I suspect might strike a lot of base-type folks as about right, that the Senate’s imprecise internal codes don’t count for much now that the police are involved.
“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,” he said. “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.”
It was different hearing this sort of argument from Plett than it was when Duffy held forth on Tuesday, or Wallin on Wednesday. Duffy was pure showmanship. His voice rose and fell, his range extending effortlessly from ironic asides to outraged hyperbole. All very good radio (no TV in the Senate). Wallin was more restrained, but indignant in the manner of someone used to being more than respected, and she ended by reaching, perhaps inadvisedly, for a defiant, wounded note.
Plett’s voice was flat, matter-of-fact, and yet not without authority. “I believe this motion came as a result of the belief that Canadians are angry,” he said in one key passage, then emphatically went on: “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.”
In other words, hey, don’t tell me about the base—I am the base and I talk to the base.
Only after he had soldered together his argument, length by length, did Plett allow himself, at the very end, a bit of the sort of speechifying indulgence one might have more expected from Duffy or Wallin. He invoked his old dad. “My father introduced me to the world of politics at the young age of 15,” Plett said. “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.”
Earlier in the speech, that would have been a bit too rich, the sort of thing that would have a critical small-town crowd musing, He thinks well of himself, doesn’t he? But Plett had set it up pretty nicely. With the flourishes and filigrees of Duffy and Wallin such recent memories, the father-and-son bit went over well.
And not just any father-and-son reminiscence, either. This one was about base-building at its most fundamental, familial, almost genetic level. No matter how the Senate expense fiasco plays itself out (and this evening’s debate still hasn’t ended as I write this), Plett’s unexpected moment served as a reminder of how a lot of Conservatives think a Conservative should sound.
Among Stephen Harper’s biggest challenges now is to somehow make the base forget that he appointed Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, or at least forgive him for doing so, and remember that he named Plett, too.