Conservative caucus members are beginning to break ranks with Stephen Harper over his government’s efforts to suspend three Tory senators without pay – calling it punishment without being found guilty.
In the Senate on Thursday, Don Plett, a former president of the Conservative Party of Canada, announced he could not support motions to suspend three senators over their questionable expense claims because to do so would deny them their fundamental right to justice and the rule of law.
Mr. Plett, a Harper loyalist, rose in the Red Chamber to say that the past week, when the Senate has been debating proposals to suspend Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau, has been one of the most difficult of his life.
Although the RCMP are investigating the expense claims of all three senators, no charges have been laid.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Peter Goldring said in an interview that it is effectively wrong to fire the senators when they have not been convicted of anything. He said his opposition to suspension without pay is in no way a judgment on the actions of the senators.
The Edmonton MP said he is not alone in feeling this way, and that most Conservative MPs he has discussed the matter with share his opinion. “I would say that three quarters of the people I talk to are not comfortable about this going ahead without due process.”
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal also opposes the measures, saying he is not quibbling with the Senate’s right to discipline its members but, if it goes down that route, rules must be followed. “We are trying to commit professional capital punishment on three of our members,” Mr. Segal said.
However, a silent majority among the Tory caucus of MPs and senators appears to support the measures. Some Conservative MPs say they are unsure about the suspensions, but feel that something must be done to show Canadians the government takes the matter seriously.
Some MPs are concerned the move to suspend the three senators has come at a bad time, because it has all but killed media coverage of what they feel are two positive initiatives: the government’s agenda-setting Throne Speech and the recently announced Canada-European Union trade deal.
Mr. Segal said he expects the Conservative majority to prevail in the vote on the suspensions in the Red Chamber, and that he feels it is unlikely enough Tory senators would join those in the caucus who oppose the move.
Sources say Mr. Harper made a direct pitch to MPs and senators in caucus this week to support the suspensions.
The Prime Minister made the case to caucus members on Wednesday that if Mr. Duffy, Ms. Wallin or Mr. Brazeau had been working in the offices of Members of Parliament and filed similar expenses, they would have been sacked.
Sources say that argument connected with many.
In the Senate, Mr. Plett said he feels it would be wrong to oversimplify a complex issue at the expense of three senators whose lives would be greatly affected if they were indefinitely deprived of their jobs, salaries and benefits.
“We will be stripping them of everything except the title ‘Senator,’ ” Mr. Plett said. “Just because it is within our rights, doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.”
Mr. Plett said the motions are incompatible with the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven.
“All of a sudden, we are going to find them guilty and apply sanctions before we have let the police do their work,” Mr. Plett said. “Now we are putting any chance of a fair investigation or future trials in serious jeopardy.”
Mr. Goldring agreed, calling the suspension motions a violation of fundamental rights: “the right to be presumed innnocent until proven guilty” in Canada.
“Let’s not call it a suspension, let’s call it being fired. Because quite frankly, they’re being suspended without pay,” Mr. Goldring said.
Debate continued into the evening on Thursday on motions to suspend the three senators over alleged “gross negligence” of parliamentary resources related to their expense claims. All three were appointed by Mr. Harper to the Senate and were removed from the Conservative caucus earlier this year.
Mr. Segal, who defended Ms. Wallin in the Senate, said two or three Conservative senators have suggested they would vote against the motions. “I’ve had quite a few [other] colleagues say we wish we could vote with you, but we have to kind of go with the flow,” he said.
Debate on the motions is expected to resume on Friday morning and the Senate could vote on the three motions later in the day.
Mr. Harper has steadfastly backed the Senate motions introduced by his government’s representative in the chamber.
“Let me be unequivocal for the record. I fully support that motion,” the Prime Minister said this week in the Commons. “I do not believe that, under the circumstances, these individuals should be on the public payroll.”