The deadbeat Senator and the Silver Fox

Allan Fotheringham December 22 1997

The deadbeat Senator and the Silver Fox

Allan Fotheringham December 22 1997

The deadbeat Senator and the Silver Fox

Allan Fotheringham

The unwashed masses of the nation, as winter’s chill sets in, are always in need of amusement. Something to divert their minds from icy side-walks, salted roads and the sniffles.

There is a need for a laugh.

And so, to our rescue, comes Senator Andy Thompson, our own delinquent deadbeat. Servant of the people, a loyal senator who has sworn allegiance to the Queen—as long as he can live in Mexico. Ottawa is a bore; why should a senator have to visit the Senate?

Such is Senator Andy’s abhorrence of Ottawa that he has spent only 12 days there since 1990. Once a not-very-good leader of the Ontario Liberal party, naturally he was rewarded by a Liberal government in Ottawa with a plush senator’s seat 30 years ago.

Just $75,000 a year in salary and tax-free allowance. An office, secretary at $38,000 a year, $90,000 for research and office expenses and 64 round-trip business-class airline tickets. But he prefers Mexico.

At the very same time his wife was telling a Toronto Sun reporter that the poor man was “in bed and he is asleep and he is under heavy medication” because of his skin cancer, a Sun photog caught him— in shorts and a T-shirt—walking his dog in the brilliant Mexican sunshine outside his $250,000 pristine white mansion in La Paz. When the tall and fit political palooka (turned 73 this week) gets mandatory Senate retirement at 75, he will receive a $40,000 pension. Such fun, such hilarity. It takes away the winter blahs. Merry Christmas, deadbeat.

Andy’s antics have put a spotlight on the dear old Senate and the papers have had a great time printing the attendance records of other lucky members. Senator Trevor Eyton, the Bay Street millionaire, apparently cannot be bothered with the one-hour flight to Ottawa much more frequently than Absent Andy can make it from Mexico.

There are different ways, naturally, of earning a Senate salary. The well-tempered Senator Pat Carney of British Columbia has pointed out, in one of her fiery letters to the editor, that it is typical Ottawa arrogance to think that one always has to breathe Ottawa

air, consult Ottawa experts and talk to Ottawa reporters to be judged worthy and exemplary. For her part, she does much of her duty roaming the B.C. coast to talk to fishermen about their salmon problems with the greedy Americans and her fight with Ottawa to prevent all the lighthouses from being deprived of human beings and run by computers.

There are senators and then there are senators. A few nights ago there were gathered in the Laurier Room of the Château Laurier in the capital several hundred inmates who were celebrating the passing through the gate of a legend of the Senate.

Senator Finlay MacDonald of Nova Scotia will hit the 75-over-and-out birthday early in the new year and 10 speakers were determined to tell the truth about him. He is celebrated for asserting marijuana should be declared illegal for anyone under 50— and compulsory for anyone over 60.

He claims that he once received a letter from an earnest student asking for the names of all senators “broken down by sex.” He replied: “Sex isn’t our problem here. It’s booze.” (Senator Ernest Manning, Preston’s father, concluded that the chamber of sober second thought was composed of “protocol, geritol and alcohol.”) Senator Fin, the Silver Fox, was the first person elevated to the red chamber by prime minister Brian Mulroney. In 13 years, he has missed only 25 days in his Senate seat. Since 1939, the Senate has only once defeated a government bill—he led the charge.

No one has had more fun in life than the Silver Fox. Tall, stately, handsome, he served as an officer in the

war in Europe with Maj. John Bassett. The first speaker this night, Finlay Jr., said: “I have a five-year-old at home who is better behaved than my father.” Six women of a certain age performed a skit— while his young second wife watched tolerantly from her seat—in which they claimed they were the only women in Ottawa who had never slept with him.

The male race shows affection for friends by insults. Everyone spoke. Joe Clark. The droll Bob Stanfield. Flora MacDonald. Barbara McDougall insulted him thoroughly, showing she knows the male game. The host was the restless Senator Norm Atkins, who used to share a house with Finlay. Senator AÍ Graham, the Liberal leader in the Senate, had his quota of purple stories about Finlay’s past in Nova Scotia politics. In thanks, the Silver Fox said Graham was “the most treacherous bastard I have ever met.”

Throughout the party of the decade in Ottawa, there was the head-shaking admiration of the gift of the blarney, now nearly lost, of all these Maritime Celtic speechifiers—Tory or Grit, Scots or Irish, Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. And the affection that permeated the room, as thick as the cigar smoke.

The Mexican deadbeat is at one end of the Senate spectrum; the Silver Fox is at the other.