Political controversy seldom ensnares the Speaker of the Senate. And until Liberal senators launched their campaign to block the Conservative government’s Goods and Services Tax (GST), Guy Charbonneau savored that accustomed anonymity. Ever since Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed his longtime friend and effective Tory fund raiser to the chair in 1984, Charbonneau has been content to enjoy the perks of his position, including frequent entertaining in the Speaker’s elegant private dining room.
But on Oct. 4, while the Liberals were out of the chamber, Charbonneau called for a quick vote—contrary to Senate tradition, under which whips of both parties must be in the chamber when a vote is called. With that, the Speaker lost control of the Sen-
ate—and became the target of venomous insults from Liberals. Last week, he was shouted down by Liberal Eymard Corbin, who screamed, “I do not recognize you, you are a nonperson.” Even Tories were clearly frustrated by Charbonneau’s loss of authority. Said one Tory senator, who requested anonymity: “Ask Guy to represent Canada at a diplomatic function and he will do it with dignity. Just don’t expect him to know all the rules of the Senate.” With the critical GST legislation hanging in the balance, Charbonneau has clearly become a political liability. Even some Tory senators were furious with his decision to rush the vote. Others, including Government Leader Lowell Murray, were frustrated by what they privately described as Charbonneau’s timid attempts to regain his moral authority. At one point, Gildas Molgat, the Liberal deputy Speaker, took over the chair in Charbonneau’s absence and refused to surrender it to anyone but the Speaker. A group of Tory senators then had to persuade Charbonneau to return and reclaim the chair. Charbonneau agreed, but first insist-
ed on dressing in his Speaker’s robes.
As a result, many senators expected that the Tories would bend to Liberal calls for Charbonneau’s resignation, despite the Speaker’s close friendship with Mulroney. “Mulroney wanted to save him,” said one Tory senator, who also refused to be quoted directly. “But if it came to a choice between getting the GST or keeping Charbonneau, Guy was gone.”
The final outcome, as Murray told the Tory Senate caucus, was that Charbonneau emerged politically “rehabilitated.” Under the terms of last week’s deal, the happy Speaker was clearly hoping that the relative calm expected in the next two weeks will restore his standing among his colleagues. But only when the Liberal senators take their gloves off again in November to take part in the final showdown over the GST will the extent of Charbonneau’s rehabilitation be measured.
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