At 9:30 one night last week, the dinner guests were settling down for coffee in the kitchen of Consiglio Di Nino’s suburban Toronto home when the telephone rang. When Di Nino and his wife, Sheila, appeared to ignore the call, a houseguest answered it. After several seconds, the visitor, appearing stunned, handed the receiver to Di Nino. The caller was Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whom Di Nino, a 52-year-old businessman and Conservative party fund raiser, said that he had met “casually on a few occasions.” After the two men exchanged pleasantries, Mulroney said, “Con, I am calling to ask you to serve in the Senate.” A startled but exuberant Di Nino, who arrived in Canada from Italy when he was 13, later told Maclean ’s “This is such a thrill it is hard for me to talk about [it]. I will have to try keeping my mouth shut more often until I learn how to be an effective senator.”
With that, Di Nino last week became one of the first in a series of appointments that Mulroney is expected to make to fill a total of 15 Senate vacancies—and reduce a Liberal majority—before the upper chamber resumes sessions on Sept. 25. Along with Di Nino, Mulroney appointed former federal energy and trade minister Pat Carney, 55, from British Columbia; Quebec notary and longtime party activist Mario Beaulieu, 60; former federal MP Gerald Comeau, 44, from Nova Scotia; and onetime New Brunswick provincial cabinet minister Nancy Teed, 41. All five begin drawing a basic salary of more than $62,000. Senators also receive a series of perquisites that include a new attendance bonus of $153 a day. Said a smiling Mulroney in response to reporters’ questions about the new senators’ strong Tory ties: “They are all clearly right-thinking Canadians.”
Mulroney’s selections attracted some criticism—most strongly in Western Canada, where there is deeply felt support for making the Senate an elected body. In British Columbia, which last month followed the earlier lead of Alberta by passing legislation providing for the election of nominees for the Senate from the province, a clearly annoyed Premier William Vander Zalm acknowledged that he was “upset” at Mulroney’s move. And Vander Zalm added that he would proceed with plans for a Senate election despite Carney’s appointment to represent the province.
But the new appointments plainly had less to do with provincial representation in Ottawa than they did with altering the existing political balance of power within the 104-seat Senate. Since the Tories were elected in 1984, the Liberals’ strong majority in the upper chamber of Parliament has frequently allowed them to delay and occasionally threaten to kill legisla-
tion that they did not like. That situation has become particularly urgent because Liberal senators have threatened to block passage of the legislation to put the government’s unpopular Goods and Services Tax in place on Jan. 1. Following last week’s appointments, the standings in the chamber are: 52 Liberals; 36 Tories; one Reform Party member; one Independent Liberal; and four Independents. Senior
Conservatives say that Mulroney has already selected choices for the remaining 10 vacant seats and will appoint them over the course of the fall. The appointments are certain to be welcomed by Conservative senators who, acknowledged Tory Senator Nathan Nurgitz of Manitoba, have until now often felt overwhelmed by the Liberal majority: “The fact is that, at present, we sure do get beaten up badly by the Liberals.”
In fact, some Tory strategists say that Mid-
roney should take even stronger steps to overcome Liberal opposition in the upper chamber. Senate House Leader Lowell Murray, for one, has urged him to exercise a provision of the
1867 British North America Act that could give the Tories two more seats than the Liberal party—although not an overall majority—by enlarging the Senate by up to eight additional seats. Under the Constitution, the Prime Minister can ask the Governor General—who must formally seek the monarch’s approval— for permission to enlarge the Senate. Only once before has a prime minister attempted to use the provision: in the 1870s, Liberal Alexander Mackenzie sought to enlarge the chamber, but Queen Victoria rejected his request on the ground that government legislation was in no immediate peril. But most analysts consider it highly unlikely that Queen Elizabeth n would now follow her great-greatgrandmother’s example.
Liberal senators angrily oppose Murray’s recommendation. The party’s deputy senate leader, Royce Frith, said the action would be "unthinkable” because “it is only supposed to be used in the national interest, and that is not the case here.” But Conservatives respond that the Senate, as an unelected body, has no moral right to reject legislation passed by the elected House of Commons. “I trust it is understandable,” Conservative deputy Senate leader William Doody declared drily, “if I find the Liberals’ unassuaged outrage over anything to do with the Senate a bit hard to take.” But even some Tory senators say that they regret that it was necessary to make new appointments—because they would rather have seen sweeping changes to all aspects of the Senate.
In any event, the era of the Liberals’ domination appears to be near an end. One Liberal senator, Joseph-Phillippe Guay, must retire when he reaches the mandatory age of 75 on Nov. 4, while three others must retire next
Still, both veteran senators and the new appointees are clearly aware of the importance of the decisions they will face in the coming months. Said Frith: “The GST legislation is critical to our country, and we would be remiss if we just closed our eyes and let it through.” For his part, Di Nino, an avid outdoorsman who recently returned from a mountain-climbing trek in Tibet, said he is elated—but not awed—by his new position. Said Di Nino: “If I can survive a mountain in Tibet with just a guide and my wits, I am sure I can learn to handle the Senate.” With that novel—and clearly comforting—approach, Di Nino should find the peaks and lows of life in the red chamber comparatively gentle.
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