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Seating showdown erupts in Ottawa's upper chamber

Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, October 18, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

House of sober second thought, or first-grade birthday party?

In Ottawa, the Senate witnessed a showdown over seating arrangements earlier this week.

The newly elected chair of the Senate banking committee, a Conservative, didn't want the vice-chair, a Liberal, sitting next to him.

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However, when Tory Irving Gerstein asked Celine Hervieux-Payette to step away from the head table, she refused.

So Mr. Gerstein, who became committee chair this week, called a vote to kick Ms. Payette out of her chair.

With a Conservative majority on the committee, the motion passed Wednesday and the game of partisan musical chairs ended with Ms. Payette being forced to grab a seat farther away.

The Quebec senator remains vice-chair of the committee.

Ms. Payette said she couldn't understand what Mr. Gerstein's problem was, and suggested that as his seatmate she could have helped him sometimes with translation, because he doesn't speak French.

Mr. Gerstein stayed mum, calling it a procedural issue.

The chair fracas was just the latest in a series of incidents which prompted Liberals to demand assurances that partisanship won't be injected into the supposedly impartial process of redrawing electoral riding boundaries, which is about to get under way.

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"We don't trust this Conservative party," said Liberal House leader Marc Garneau. "This Conservative party will stoop to anything to try to give itself an electoral advantage."

As examples of the Tories' hyper-partisanship, Mr. Garneau pointed to the government's penchant for imposing limits on debate in the House of Commons and conducting the business of parliamentary committees behind closed doors.

He also pointed to the Tory phone campaign against Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and the so-called in-and-out scandal, in which the Conservative party and its fundraising arm, which Mr. Gerstein heads, pleaded guilty to exceeding the spending limit in the 2006 election campaign.

Mr. Gerstein, along with three other top party officials, were initially charged in the in-out affair but those charges were eventually dropped as part of a plea bargain.

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