Can Marjory LeBreton put out the fire?

The partisan pit bull in pearls bites back

Fred Chartrand/CP

Nobody does moral rectitude better than Senator Marjory LeBreton. The long-time Conservative stalwart and former government leader in the Senate has mastered a folksy “Why I never!” indignation that was on full display this week as she countered  allegations made by senators Duffy and Wallin, many in which she featured prominently. LeBreton presents as a very a nice lady who’s perplexed, shocked even, by the sideshow unfolding around her. But, as her performance this week both in the Upper Chamber and the media attests, she’s a partisan pit bull in pearls who has not survived 50-plus years on the Hill for nothing. LeBreton began her career as Diefenbaker’s secretary and honed her skills as deputy chief of staff for Brian Mulroney, who appointed her to the Senate in 1993. In 2006, Harper named her leader of the government in the Senate, which came with a cabinet seat. In July, she stepped down as government leader, two years before her mandatory retirement, a demotion viewed as a rebuke for the handling of the Senate expense scandal.

This week, she earned back Brownie points with the PM. On Wednesday, LeBreton stood in the Upper Chamber issuing a “false, false, false” rejoinder to Pamela Wallin’s accusations, among them that she—along with Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former director of strategic communications—had waged a “personal vendetta” against her. The two were jealous of her success, Wallin claimed: they “could not abide the fact that I was outspoken in caucus, or critical of their leadership—or that my level of activity brought me into the public eye and once garnered the praise of the prime minister,” Wallin said. “They resented that. They resented me being an activist senator.”

Wallin also accused LeBreton and Stewart Olsen of orchestrating “14 specific targeted leaks” to the media that left her reputation “in tatters.” She called LeBreton a turncoat for reneging on deal made during a May 17 “panicked phone call” to Wallin, along with Ray Novak, Harper’s chief of staff. Both were speaking for Harper who wanted her gone from the Conservative caucus, Wallin said. They agreed Wallin would say she was “recusing” herself and step down; 10 minutes later LeBreton announced publicly Wallin had “resigned.”

In her 10-minute rebuttal to Wallin, LeBreton registered amazement at the notion of a mean-girling agenda, and she peppered her response with such fulsome praise that one couldn’t help wonder whether Wallin had been the victim of gaslighting. LeBreton said she was delighted when Wallin was appointed to the Senate in 2009. “What’s not to like?,” she said of the former journalist. (In other interviews this week, LeBreton admitted she was no fan of Wallin’s coverage of Mulroney back in the day. Previously she has dismissed the “Liberal elites and their media lickspittles,” a group to which Wallin presumably once belonged.) During her Senate rebuttal, LeBreton claimed that she was so complimentary to Wallin that people told her to dial it down. “Why I would ever target a person I admired like Senator Wallin is ludicrous,” LeBreton said.

LeBreton did touch on one “clash” with Wallin related to her work as chair of the national defence committee. That would be a conflict in the Senate over Wallin’s refusal to heed a call within the Senate to investigate sexual harassment in the RCMP in the summer of 2012. “I dealt with her directly. I never made a fuss,” LeBreton said in the Senate on Wednesday. In reality, LeBreton worked around Wallin’s resistance by scheduling a Senate vote to approve the investigation on a day Wallin was away. And her displeasure with Wallin’s imperious ways was no secret, say Senate colleagues.

LeBreton’s rebuttal showed her to be a master of the faint-praise slam down, a female talent often cultivated in high school. One example: “I hate to disappoint my colleagues, but I can’t imagine Carolyn Stewart Olsen and I ever spent more than two minutes talking about Sen. Wallin,” she said,  a statement that suggests Wallin wasn’t worth their time. LeBreton also raised the rampant rumours that Wallin had been angling for her job as government leader in the Senate while sloughing them off: “I was never threatened by Senator Wallin,” she said.

Her rebuttal to Duffy was more pointed, and more personal, as she even slammed his performance on Mike Duffy Live, the skill-set that got him into the Senate: She said she was “bemused by his approach to politics, sometimes frustrated by his style of journalism—trading, as he did more often then not, on gossip and the latest hot rumour; and sometimes I was so disgusted that I felt like putting my foot through the TV set.” She referred to the former journalist as a “great storyteller,” code for “liar,” as she accusing him of delivering “a whopper.”

She denied claims made by Duffy’s lawyer Monday that she’d written an email in 2009 approving Duffy’s PEI residency status so he could claim Ottawa living expenses. She said she “looked high and low” for the memo and asked for it to be tabled. Like Wallin, Duffy claimed LeBreton and Novak strong-armed him in a telephone call: “[LeBreton] said if I didn’t quit the caucus immediately, I would be sent to the ethics committee with orders from the leadership to throw me out of the Senate.” He said she told him it was “the only way to save your pay cheque.” Through it all, LeBreton expressed wide-eyed disbelief: “This makes no sense; the government leader in the Senate does not run the Senate.”

LeBreton, no stranger to cozy off-the-record chats with reporters, understands well the role the press plays in keeping the story going. She has repeatedly said she heard about breaking news on the Senate scandal when the public did. She continued her defence in the media as she also promoted the motions to suspend all three senators. On the CBC Thuursday, she said Wallin had dealt women “a huge blow” by turning the situation into a “catfight.” (In September, she gave this telling interview in which she referred to Sen. Patrick Brazeau as “just a human tragedy and an experiment gone wrong” and predicted Duffy will become “a great hero, I know, of the media, if he decides to say something about any one of us.”)

In the Senate on Wednesday, LeBreton also cited a Maclean’s Sept. 23 cover story on Wallin that quoted Shelley Ambrose, a long-time Wallin friend. Ambrose blamed LeBreton for creating the spending scandal: “LeBreton started a small kitchen-sink fire about Pamela Wallin’s expenses and it has turned into a fire that could burn the house down.” LeBreton reframed the quote slightly: “I read that very interesting story in Maclean’s magazine where a close friend of hers said that I, Marjory LeBreton, started the fire in the kitchen sink that engulfed the whole place. I didn’t start any fire in any kitchen. I simply reported to her what was reported to me by Senate administration. I had every confidence that she would resolve this matter. I never discussed it with anyone. I never went to Internal Economy.”

On Thursday night came more LeBreton news. She was appointed to the powerful Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration committee. Its former members have been sidelined, most recently Stewart Olsen who announced she was stepping down hours before Wallin addressed the Senate. LeBreton joins two new Conservative senators: Daniel Lang and Fabian Manning. The appointment would appear to signal a vote of confidence. The first mission: put out the fire, if it’s not too late.

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