Ottawa

The scene in the Senate

Strong language, rigorous debate, then a return to talking points

Adrian Wyld/CP

No cameras are allowed in the Senate—it’s almost as though the place is some kind of anachronism—so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was quite a scene there as the patronage appointees assembled early this evening to vote on kicking out Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.

Even though the galleries above them for media, political staffers, sundry operatives and plain curious citizens were bustling, the senators mostly kept their eyes decorously on their desks. Not David Smith, though. The old Liberal campaign chieftain frankly scanned the gathering throng.

The first order of business was for Noel Kinsella, the Senate speaker, to rule in favour of breaking up the motion to suspend, which meant Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin—whose alleged violations of housing allowance and travel expense rules are, after all, quite distinct—would face the music one by one in separate votes.

You’d think that might slow things down to the point of sapping the drama. Not so. In fact, it introduced a bit of suspense. It was fairly clear the Conservatives had the votes to boot out all three. But now we’d see if any one of the purported miscreants had, in the past two extraordinary weeks of Senate debate, garnered more sympathy.

Brazeau’s vote came first. No contest: 50 voted for suspension, 29 against and 13 abstained. The last two who stood to vote in his favour were Brazeau himself and Hugh Segal. This was fitting: Brazeau spoke bitterly late last night in his own cause, Segal with mounting outrage against what he contends was an unjust process. Have two more contrasting figures—Brazeau a populist political wreck, Segal a refined throwback to another era’s Toryism—ever been so improbably linked in a political episode?

Next up, Duffy’s fate. He was not in the chamber. Again, a lopsided result: 52  voted suspend him, 28 against, 11 abstained. Fascinatingly, Don Plett— Manitoba Conservative, former party president, friend of Duffy—was among those abstaining. His powerful speech last month, arguing that the three embattled senators hadn’t been dealt with fairly, apparently didn’t mean he would actually vote against his party line.

And, finally, Wallin. She was present. Before the proceedings began, Liberal Senator Anne Cools, one of the upper chamber’s characters, sat talking Wallin’s ear off. Maybe it was a welcome distraction. By now, the rough pattern was predictable: 52 to throw her out, 27 to let her stay, and a dozen abstentions.

By the time I reached the Senate foyer, Brazeau was long gone, having stormed through the media area without pausing. Wallin, however, beelined for the cameras. “I think it’s an extremely sad day for democracy,” she said. “If we can’t expect the rule of law in Canada, then where on earth can we expect it?” Then she rushed off, looking like she might lose her composure if she lingered even a moment more.

Segal didn’t have that problem. He held forth for a good long time. He started off declaring differences of opinion to be quite normal in his party, healthy even. But then he said: “For all those in the Conservative party across Canada who do believe in the rule of law, who do believe in fairness, I hope I tried to speak for them.” What does that suggest about those he was not speaking for?

Plett reacted with outrage when reporters asked why he had abstained after making such a memorable case against what he portrayed as a deeply unfair process. “For you to suggest that I gave up my principles is sickening,” he said, explaining later: “I did not have the votes the win. There is no point continuing to fight when the battle is over.”

Thus, the talk remained heated, drenched with personality, full of strong language, just as the debate has been for the past two weeks. At least, it stayed that way until Carignan stepped up to the microphone. Suddenly, the authentic voices that we’ve heard in the Senate lately—compelling one moment, ridiculous the next; by turns emotional and rigorous—gave way to something more familiar on Parliament Hill: talking points.

Carignan read ploddingly, first in English then in French, from a prepared statement.  “The misconduct of these three senators called for firm action and that is what we have taken,” Harper’s designated point man in the Senate recited. “Unfortunately, Trudeau’s Liberals continued to defend what is the status quo and condoned the action of these senators.”

Even when he took questions, his didn’t sound anything like the bracingly individual voices we’ve been treated to as the Senate grappled with this issue. At one point, Carignan even said, “It’s our responsibility to maintain the confidence of the public in this institution.” And so flat was his delivery that nobody laughed.