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Claude Carignan got an earful about Senate waste everywhere he went this summer.
As the Prime Minister's newly appointed Government Leader in the Red Chamber, the 48-year-old Conservative senator was in charge of restoring a sense of accountability in the oft-maligned institution. As a lawyer, Mr. Carignan was well-versed in Senate rules, having helped to rewrite the French version shortly after his appointment in 2009, feeling they were badly translated.
He set out to prepare a case for a tough crackdown against his three former caucus colleagues, accusing Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin of "gross negligence" in filing their expense claims. Mr. Carignan drafted a series of options, based on the principle that it was time for tough, unprecedented action by the Senate – and now placing the rookie leader at the centre of the Senate controversy, accused of being Stephen Harper's hatchet man.
His proposals were quietly put to the Conservative Party's caucus of senators earlier this month, including the possibility of suspensions with pay or without pay, rising to straight-out expulsions. After a long closed-door discussion, the consensus in the party fell in favour of suspension without pay.
The plan obtained the assent of the Prime Minister, and this week Mr. Carignan denied the assertion that he was doing Mr. Harper's bidding, saying this was a case where the Senate needed to police itself.
After tabling a motion after the Speech from the Throne, Mr. Carignan spelled out his proposal at length this week, relying on his legal experience to put forth a complete argument in favour of his motion. Still, Mr. Carignan's strategy was quickly put to the test, and threatened to backfire on the Conservatives.
His opponents – mainly Liberal, but also a few Conservative and independent senators – decried the lack of due process or opportunity by the three senators to defend themselves. Mr. Duffy, in particular, used his speaking time in the chamber trying to undermine Mr. Harper's version of events and focusing the country's attention back on the circus atmosphere in the Senate.
Then, on Friday afternoon, Mr. Carignan was accused by Mr. Brazeau of offering him a backroom deal, including a lower punishment in exchange for a public apology. The tightly constructed legal argument suddenly seemed to crumble in the name of political expediency.
Mr. Carignan is no stranger to backroom politics, but this is his first time at the centre of attention in Ottawa. He said his plans to increase the accountability and efficiency of the 150-year-old institution are only starting. "The first step is showing to Canadians that the Senate is serious and ready to take care of the disciplinary infractions of its members," he said.
Before going into federal politics, Mr. Carignan was a senior player in the Action Démocratique du Québec, a fiscally conservative party created in 1994 to promote greater "autonomy" for Quebec.
According to several sources who agreed to talk to The Globe and Mail on background, Mr. Carignan, working as an adviser to then-leader Mario Dumont, was involved in the behind-the-scenes talks in the "Yes" committee in the 1995 referendum on sovereignty – including coming up with the long question that was put to Quebeckers. He went on to fight a number of legal battles on behalf of the ADQ, including efforts to place the party on the same footing as the Parti Québécois and the Quebec Liberal Party during provincial elections and televised debates.
By 2000, Mr. Carignan focused his energy on municipal politics, becoming the mayor of St-Eustache, north of Montreal. During his tenure, he managed to avoid the type of corruption scandal that has plagued a number of other surrounding suburbs.
In the 2008 general election, he ran for the Conservative Party, hoping to fuel a breakthrough in the Montreal area. However, the party was dragged down by a controversy over spending cuts in cultural programs, and Mr. Carignan finished far behind the Bloc Québécois in second place.
Mr. Carignan was on the losing side in the referendum and, like many Quebeckers, he became a federalist in the aftermath. Still, before Mr. Harper named Mr. Carignan to the Senate in 2009, he personally verified his allegiance to Canada.
Mr. Harper went on to appreciate Mr. Carignan's contribution to his caucus, promoting him to replace Marjory LeBreton as the top of the Senate hierarchy. In a sign of his displeasure with the Red Chamber, he did not appoint Mr. Carignan to cabinet, leaving the Senate without a minister for the first time since his government's election in 2006.
Still, Mr. Carignan's rise up the Conservative ranks comes as the party hopes to reclaim lost ground in Quebec in the next federal election. With the higher public profile that comes from his leadership role in the Senate, he stands to play an important role in future Conservative fortunes in his home province.
His success, however, depends on the fate of his motion to suspend three senators, which is scheduled to come to a vote next week.
Daniel Leblanc is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa