The fate of three disgraced, former Conservative senators is all but sealed.
The Harper government used its majority muscle in the Senate on Monday to shut down debate on the proposed suspensions of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau.
That paves the way for a final vote Tuesday on a motion that would strip the trio of their pay, privileges and Senate resources, while allowing them to continue being covered by the chamber’s health, dental and life insurance plans. The suspensions would be for the duration of the parliamentary session, which could last for two years.
The closure motion passed easily by a vote of 51-34, with five Conservative senators breaking ranks to defy Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s insistence that the three erstwhile caucus colleagues — whom he appointed and once feted as stars — should be booted off the public payroll as quickly as possible.
Conservative senators John Wallace, Nancy Ruth and Hugh Segal voted against limiting debate and two more Tory senators, Don Plett and Don Meredith, abstained.
Wallin, the only one of the three disgraced senators in the chamber, also abstained.
While the move has exposed a sizable rift within the normally cohesive Conservative ranks, the dissenters are too few to prevent the government from carrying its motion to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau. It is scheduled to be put to a vote Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. (ET).
Brazeau made a last-ditch appeal for clemency Monday, warning MPs and senators that his unfair treatment sets a precedent that could come back to bite any one of them.
“Colleagues, if this can happen to me, it can happen to you, ” he wrote in a letter to all parliamentarians.
Brazeau reiterated that external auditors found he met all four criteria for claiming a housing allowance for a secondary residence in Ottawa. And they concluded that Senate policy on the allowance was too vague to determine if anyone had claimed it inappropriately.
Yet, the Senate’s internal economy committee nevertheless decided he’d made improper claims and demanded repayment, eventually triggering the government’s current bid to suspend him.
“I recommend you have a lawyer examine all claims you submit before you submit them,” Brazeau advised his parliamentary colleagues.
“You may currently believe you are being compliant with (House of Commons) or Senate policy. The rules may change without your knowledge and you may find yourself kicked out of your caucus, being suspended without pay and being scapegoated in the media as some kind of entitled ‘fat cat.’
“This can happen in spite of the fact that you are completely compliant with a given policy. This can happen even though you never submit per diems for lunch and brown bag it every day. Your compliance is irrelevant if internal economy says that it is, as they are above the law.”
His appeal resonated with some of Brazeau’s former caucus mates.
Wallace denounced the government’s bid to impose the same penalty on all three senators for allegedly claiming improper living and travel expenses, regardless of the different facts and circumstances surrounding each case.
“We must … be satisfied that all of the sanctions imposed for each of the three senators, including the duration of the proposed suspensions are, in the circumstances, fair, reasonable, balanced and proportionate to what has been alleged against each of them,” Wallace told the upper house.
The government’s “one-size-fits-all approach … flies directly in the face of the reality that these are three separate individuals with three very different sets of facts and circumstances,” he added.
Noting that the suspensions would deprive the trio of their livelihoods and could irreparably damage their reputations and ability to find alternate jobs, Wallace also denounced the government’s bid to limit debate on such a serious move.
“We absolutely cannot take any shortcuts to achieving a fair and just result for those who stand accused.”
Segal said the proposed suspensions are without precedent and shouldn’t be rushed into without ensuring a fair, impartial hearing for the accused and an assessment of all the facts.
“We in this chamber must not be about any rush to judgment or the trashing of reputations or, worse, interference in independent police investigations,” he said, referring to the fact that the RCMP is investigating all three of the senators.
The motion to cut off debate may seem innocuous, Segal added, but “an innocuous procedural motion is not innocuous if it enables freedoms to be diluted and sentencing to occur before full due process.”
Government Senate leader Claude Carignan dismissed the objections, arguing that the trio’s “reprehensible” misconduct demands swift disciplinary action in order to restore public trust in the Senate.
“We cannot ask Canadians to respect this institution if we do not respect it ourselves,” he said.
While the government easily won the motion to shut down debate on the proposed suspensions, it will find it much harder to put a lid on the controversy that’s been raging over the Senate expenses scandal for almost a year.
Liberals in the House of Commons are set to introduce Tuesday a motion instructing the Commons ethics committee to hold televised hearings into the conduct of the Prime Minister’s Office in the payment of Duffy’s disallowed expense claims, including calling Harper as a witness, under oath.
Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally gave Duffy $90,000 to repay his expenses. Harper claims Wright acted alone and that he knew nothing about the transaction, although as many as a dozen other PMO staffers and top party officials did know about it.
Duffy has alleged that Wright, under instruction from the prime minister to make a political embarrassment go away, orchestrated a “monstrous” conspiracy to cover up the transaction.