SPECIAL REPORT

OLD POWERS, NEW STRENGTHS

LIBERALS FLEX THEIR SENATE MUSCLE

BRUCE WALLACE October 30 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

OLD POWERS, NEW STRENGTHS

LIBERALS FLEX THEIR SENATE MUSCLE

BRUCE WALLACE October 30 1989

OLD POWERS, NEW STRENGTHS

SPECIAL REPORT

LIBERALS FLEX THEIR SENATE MUSCLE

Nathan Nurgitz fondly remembers how, in the august world of Red Chamber politics, senators once watched over their own. As a rookie Conservative senator from Winnipeg in July, 1980, Nurgitz was assigned to attack the Liberal government’s proposed employment tax credit act. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by the late senator John Connolly, a prominent Liberal fund-raiser and one of the chamber’s most powerful members. Nervous at the daunting task ahead, Nurgitz sent Connolly a note asking his Liberal opponent for guidance on how to attack the legislation. The next day, over a drink in the Liberal senator’s office, the usually intensely partisan Connolly set aside party differences in order to advise the neophyte senator on how to respond to the bill.

After the newcomer finished his speech in the Senate the following day, Connolly extolled his “extensive preparation,” Nurgitz recalled. “You do not see that kind of camaraderie anymore,” added the Tory senator. “The Senate is now a much more partisan place.” Content: To be sure, friendships across party lines have not disappeared. Nor have Senate debates become raucous exchanges. For one thing, with near-empty public and press galleries and no TV cameras to record debates, senators are not tempted to grandstand. And for 21 almost unbroken years during successive Liberal governments in the House of Commons, the Senate’s Liberal majority was generally content to rubber-stamp legislation from the lower chamber. But in 1984, when the Conservatives formed their first majority gov-

ernment since 1962, the political dynamics of the Senate altered drastically.

The idea of rubber-stamping Tory bills deeply rankled the party’s Senate leadership— especially the fiercely partisan Senate opposition leader Allan J. MacEachen. Frustrated by what many Liberal senators insist was ineffective opposition in the Commons by John Turner and the Liberal MPs, MacEachen frequently invoked the considerable powers granted the Senate under the Constitution to challenge the Mulroney government (page 28). Said MacEachen, an MP for 27 years and a senior minister in several Liberal cabinets: “I suppose the supporters of the government would like us all to be asleep in the Senate because it would make life easier for them. But that’s not my idea of a relevant legislative body.” MacEachen has used his power to delay some important pieces of Tory legislation, notably the Meech Lake constitutional amendments and the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. In doing so, “Allan J.,” as he is respectfully referred to by colleagues, has solidified his reputation as a sly political tactician whose penchant for secrecy provokes confusion among Tory senators. Said Conservative deputy government leader William Doody: “I spend so much effort trying to find out what will and will not fly past Allan J. that my tombstone will be engraved: ‘He spent all his days being nice to Senator MacEachen.’ ” Part of MacEachen’s strength stems from the obvious fact that there are 56 sitting

Liberals in the Senate, who easily outvote the 35 Tories. That majority also allows the Liberals to control the 13 permanent committees where most significant Senate business occurs. Senate committees have the power to amend legislation and they control the speed with which Commons legislation receives upper house approval—a necessary step before any bill is passed into law.

In the past, Senate critics assailed some committee chairmen as visible symbols of abuse of power on behalf of special interests. The late senator Salter Hayden, for example, chaired the Senate Banking, Trade and Commerce Committee for 32 years until 1983, while simultaneously holding 18 corporate directorships, including that of a chartered bank. Since then, the Senate has instructed its committee members to divest themselves of any personal holdings that might conflict with their committee work.

Spotty: As well, some senators insist that only a few of their colleagues —notably Vancouver unionist Edward Lawson, who seldom attends sittings—persist in the spotty attendance that gave their house a reputation for chronic absenteeism. Next year, the senators are expected to introduce a new system of monitoring attendance, which would make any senator’s absences a matter of public record. And last week, a commission reviewing parliamentarians’ salaries and allowances recommended changes that could threaten the senators’ present salaries of $60,000 a year and expense allowances of $9,600. It also called for a reduction in the number of days of debate that

senators may miss without losing pay.

Part of MacEachen’s success, say his admirers, arises from his increasingly judicious choices of where and when to attack the Tory government. In 1985, his eagerness to block a government borrowing bill on obscure technical grounds provoked concern in the Liberal caucus. Recalled one Liberal senator: “At first,

MacEachen said, ‘We have a majority, let’s use it.’ But many of us were uncomfortable with that. Eventually, caucus said, ‘Enough is enough.’ And we let the bill go through.” Now, MacEachen is more selective, to the occasional dismay of his own colleagues. Saskatoon Liberal Senator Sidney Buckwold, for one, who now chairs the banking committee, recently lamented to colleagues that he wanted his committee to hold crosscountry hearings on the proposed Goods and Services Tax. “I would love to rake you guys over the coals,” he told Tory fellow senators. “But Allan J. won’t let me.”

Muscle: But MacEachen’s tactics clearly unsettle his Tory opponents. Said Quebec Senator Paul David, a respected Quebec cardiologist appointed to the chamber in 1985: “The Senate has the capacity to be a more productive place if it were not so partisan.” In fact, many observers point to the presence of energetic new senators such as David and Richard Doyle of Ontario to show that the Senate now boasts talented members and is no longer merely a refuge for party loyalists. Said journalist Larry Zolf, whose 1984 book Survival of the Fattest skewered Senate practices: “There now appears to be a division

between working senators and the dodos.” But as the traditional caricature of the ineffectual Senate fades, the temptation to make partisan use of its constitutional muscle is likely to strengthen.

BRUCE WALLACE

LISA VAN DUSEN

in Ottawa