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bruce anderson

The 60 Conservatives sitting in Canada's Senate are being urged by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do something that would set a precedent for our democracy. Regardless of what these senators think about the guilt or innocence of Senators Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, they owe it to Canadians to think long and hard before they toe their party's line.

So far, two Conservative Senators, Hugh Segal and Donald Plett, have said they will resist the urging of the PM and vote against the motion presented by the Government Leader, Claude Carignan. Both their speeches are examples of the Senate's finer qualities: independent thought, and wisdom born of experience.

Mr. Plett stressed the fundamental right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. He noted that the Senate had voted to ask the police to investigate, and now "all of a sudden" the senators were being asked to apply a punishment before that process was concluded, which would put any chance of a fair trial in "serious jeopardy."

The Liberals in the Senate argue that any vote to punish should be preceded by a Senate committee hearing, where testimony would be given and tested under oath.

Though it may seem otherwise since this scandal has been swirling for months, there has nevertheless been no such due process.

Based on the stories we have all heard, it's hard to believe these senators have done nothing wrong. But it's just as hard to believe that all the relevant facts are known.

And perhaps the hardest thing to believe, right now, is that the Prime Minister's call for immediate suspension has only to do with what's right by the taxpayer and nothing whatsoever to do with his own political standing. After all, he has been at pains for months to limit scrutiny of this affair.

And so, when considering what to do when the motion is put to a vote in the coming week, let's hope the Conservative senators do more than simply go along with the PM's request. They might want to ask themselves, for example:

  • Do they know all the relevant facts?
  • Do they believe that the senators have had a fair hearing?
  • Are they comfortable setting a precedent that would allow a majority of Members to suspend others without some sort of formal hearing?
  • Are they being asked by their leaders to do this for sound reasons or for political expediency?
  • Should any Prime Minister have the power to use a majority to suspend Members of Parliament on a simple vote?
  • Is their duty of sober second thought best served by suspending Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau or by allowing a hearing?

Many Canadians are so riled up by the stories that have emerged about Senate spending that they are impatient for sanctions to be leveled. No doubt Mr. Harper is frustrated, angry and wants to move on to other issues facing the country. All of which is understandable.

My guess is that if Mr. Harper had shared all the facts about the Duffy-Wright payment in the spring and apologized to Canadians for the mistake that was made, we would be talking about other things. As things now stand, serious allegations have recently been made about the PM, his office, and several senators who are close to him. If he knows those allegations to be false, he should embrace a hearing, as it would be helpful to his reputation.

With a vote expected Wednesday, the value and virtue of the Senate hangs in the balance. A vote against the government motions is not a vote for acquittal, but a vote for a trial. Let's hope these senators consider carefully their responsibility, and the need for a Senate that can act independently, when such independence is truly needed.

(For those who may want to communicate a view to the Conservative Senators, they are listed at this website. Clicking on each name will offer a phone number and email address)

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada's leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC's popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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