CANADA

OUT OF ORDER

CHAOS IN THE SENATE AS LIBERALS FIGHT THE NEW TORY MAJORITY OVER THE PLANNED GST

BRUCE WALLACE October 15 1990
CANADA

OUT OF ORDER

CHAOS IN THE SENATE AS LIBERALS FIGHT THE NEW TORY MAJORITY OVER THE PLANNED GST

BRUCE WALLACE October 15 1990

OUT OF ORDER

CHAOS IN THE SENATE AS LIBERALS FIGHT THE NEW TORY MAJORITY OVER THE PLANNED GST

CANADA

As one of the world's most accomplished heart surgeons, Ottawa's Wilbert Keon is accustomed to maintaining icy calm and steady

nerves under circumstances of life and death. But, last week, Keon acknowledged that the fierce personal attacks launched against him after he accepted Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s appointment to the Senate on Sept. 27 had shaken even his customary cool. “People ask, ‘How could you stoop so low as to be a senator?’ ” said a bewildered Keon. A member of the Civic Hospital’s renowned heart institute, Keon will fill one of eight new Senate openings created by the Queen at Mulroney’s request. The Prime Minister’s appointments broke the Liberal party’s grip on the upper house and are likely to permit the Conservative government to pass its unpopular proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST). But even Keon’s friends have accused him of abandoning his principles. Declared the surgeon: “I could not believe the outpouring of contempt, as if I had no honor, pride or integrity. It should not be considered a personal disgrace to sit in the Senate.”

Keon's assumptions about the normally sleepy upper chamber of Parliament were not the only ones overturned last week. With the Conservative government’s planned sevenper-cent GST stalled on the Senate floor, Tory strategists made it clear that they were prepared to force the tax bill’s passage—even if it meant dispensing with parliamentary protocol. The Senate Speaker, Conservative Guy Charbonneau, abruptly swept aside one time-honored opposition stalling tactic when he allowed the chamber’s new Tory-supporting majority to vote down a Liberal motion to adjourn debate—while the entire opposition was out of the room. In response, furious Liberal senators, led by Senator Royce Frith, flouted an

even more sacrosanct Senate convention and invited reporters and members of the House of Commons onto the Senate floor.

As senators on both sides of the chamber exchanged vitriolic insults, pandemonium reigned on the chamber floor. Liberal Jacques Hébert physically restrained Senate security guards who were trying to evict journalists from the chamber. Even friendships were tested. Liberal Senator David Steuart,

74, shouted at a fellow Saskatchewan representative Tory, E. W. (Staff) Barootes,

71—his close friend and former physician: “Crawl under the table, because you are a despicable little bugger.”

Steuart later apologized and the two men hugged each other. Meanwhile, B.C. New Democrat MP Nelson Riis took advantage of the breakdown in tradition to enter the Senate and denounce the Tories. Said Riis: “This is the beginning of tyranny in this country.”

Order was finally restored, and non-senators were ejected from the chamber 45 minutes later. But the Senate’s

agenda remained paralysed by the Liberals’ tactics of procedural harassment. The next day, while Tory Senate Leader Lowell Murray tried to resume Senate business, Liberal senators drowned out his words by continually banging their desk tops—for about eight hours. But, finally, at about 6 on Friday evening, the Senate leadership of both parties agreed to begin their debate on the Senate banking committee’s report on the GST. That report, which was written when the committee was dominated by Liberals, recommends killing the tax.

Despite the disruptions, the Liberals’ spirited resistance appeared likely to fail in a chamber now dominated by the Conservatives. Said Hébert: “We cannot defeat the GST on a vote unless a virus keeps half the Tory caucus at home. But we may postpone it, technically forever.”

At the same time, both Liberals and New Democrats opened another front in the fight against the GST by launching court challenges to Mulroney’s Senate expansion. Ten Liberal senators filed suit in the Ontario Supreme Court against the action. And the New Democrats said that they would challenge the constitutionality of the new senators in a New Brunswick court this week. NDP members claim that those appointments contravene the Constitution because they leave New Brunswick with more senators (11) than MPs (10).

Ultimately, the expansion may pave the way for a government victory on the GST. But the chaos on the floor of an institution that many Canadians have traditionally dismissed as a constitutional relic has brought the very future of the Senate into question. Most analysts now say that it must have far more limited powers—or else become an elected body. Said

Manitoba Senator Douglas Everett, an Independent Liberal who supported the Tory government in the controversial vote last week: “In the days when senators were allowed to think freely, an appointed body could be justified. But both sides now insist upon strict caucus discipline. And if we are going to be a partisan place, then senators are going to have to be elected.”

Until now, most of the demand for Senate reform has originated in Western Canada. Many political figures in the West want to

recast the upper house into an elected body to act as a brake on the powers of the Commons. Some also favor equal numbers of senators from each province to replace the current dominance by Quebec and Ontario. Observed pollster Allan Gregg: “In the West, Senate reform has taken on a tremendous aura as a way to unstack a stacked deck. The current Senate cannot endure.”

Other detractors say that the Senate should be abolished outright. Said Peter McCormick, for one, a political scientist at Alberta’s University of Lethbridge: “Most Canadians are so heartily sick of the Senate that they do not want to hear about it.” In the current struggle over the GST, some Tories have taken up the anti-Senate cause. Last week, government House Leader Harvie Andre described

the Senate as an “atrocious institution.”

But some Canadians still appear to support the Senate’s role. Said Prof. McCormick: “The Senate came out of the free trade debate looking good. They performed a service by forcing an election which cleared the air over a divisive issue.” And internal Conservative party polls taken during the government’s first mandate also showed that many Canadians wanted to retain the Senate in some form. Said Gregg: “A bad institution doing the right thing is fine. Canadians by and large have a rever-

ence for institutions, although it is slipping daily.”

As a result, the Senate appears likely, at least in the short term, to remain a second forum for partisan debate. But last week’s visceral political battles may soon claim at least one casualty. Stung by the widespread hostility to his appointment, Keon said that he may resign his seat after voting on the Goods and Services Tax. And he offered a pessimistic prognosis both for Parliament’s upper chamber and for the country. “If our national body politic has fallen apart so badly that a person cannot take a seat in the Senate,” said Keon, “then we are in deep trouble.” That concern was one that many Canadians seemed to share.

BRUCE WALLACE

in Ottawa