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Tory against Senate suspensions is no stranger to breaking ranks

Tory Senator Hugh Segal is pictured in Toronto in 2010. He is one of the few Conservative senators defying his government’s campaign to suspend without pay three of his Red Chamber colleagues.

Michael Hudson/CP

Hugh Segal, one of the few Conservative senators defying his government's campaign to suspend without pay three of his Red Chamber colleagues over expense claims, laughs at the suggestion he is a rebel.

Mr. Segal, 63, argues that the Stephen Harper Conservative Party is a big enough blue tent to accommodate him and his brand of Toryism.

It is not his first turn as maverick. This time he's one of two Conservative senators publicly opposing the government's push to suspend Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau without pay for questionable expense claims, even though they have not been charged or found guilty.

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In the past, Mr. Segal has campaigned for a guaranteed annual income – hardly in keeping with Mr. Harper's laissez-faire philosophy – and broke ranks with the government last June to help stall a Conservative MP's bill that would have required unions to disclose more financial information. Mr. Segal was able to pass an amendment to the bill – supported by several Tory senators – that would have forced the matter to return to the Commons, but the process was interrupted by Parliament's prorogation.

Mr. Segal – a prominent aide to former Progressive Conservative leaders, including former Ontario premier Bill Davis and Brian Mulroney – seems to have paid little price for his deviation from the Harper script in the Senate.

Part of this is the nature of the job. Unlike Tory MPs, who need Mr. Harper to sign their nomination papers to run again, Mr. Segal does not have to please the Prime Minister's Office.

But despite marching to his own drummer, the Ontario senator has managed to retain a special assignment for the Harper government as Canada's envoy to the Commonwealth.

The post has given him license to speak sharply in international circles. Earlier this month, Mr. Segal, in a dispute fuelled by Canada's frustration with the Commonwealth and its Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, accused the organization's secretariat of acting as a "shill" for Sri Lanka's government.

He says he did not need to run that past Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. "I know how the minister feels," Mr. Segal said. "Sometimes as an envoy you can say things … which ministers and first ministers leave better said to others."

Mr. Segal is staunch in his insistence the Senate is not following due process with Ms. Wallin, a long-time friend, and the other two senators. "She doesn't have a dishonest bone in her body," he said."I know if there was confusion or mistakes in filing [expenses] they were mistakes and they were not any willful effort to do anything inappropriate."

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He says he is always troubled by the label "maverick," noting he is a big fan of the government's assertive foreign policy, which he says "brings a measure of principle and focus we haven't seen in 30 years" in Canada.

"I am a Red Tory," Mr. Segal said, referring to a brand of conservatism that is fiscally right of centre, but socially progressive.

"I will show up on that side of most issues. But the vast majority of times, I support the government," he said.

"What's the litmus test for how much disagreement you need before you're a maverick?"

He names former prime minister John Diefenbaker's Bill of Rights, the creation of TVOntario and former PC leader Robert Stanfield's support for official bilingualism – despite the threat of caucus revolt – as evidence of Red Tory philosophy at work.

Mr. Segal suggested Mr. Harper continued this tradition when he issued a 2008 government apology for injustices at Indian residential schools. The senator said he admires how the Prime Minister stood "and apologized for what happened to First Nations even though he was not responsible for any of it."

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The Montreal-born politician said he cannot see himself sitting in the Senate until the mandatory retirement age of 75, suggesting that in two or three years he will decide he has accomplished what he can.

He said he would like Canadians to have the chance through a referendum to decide whether to reform or abolish the Senate, calling an unelected Red Chamber "a sort of odd democratic anomaly for a modern country like us."

There seems to be a degree of resignation among Conservatives about Mr. Segal's defiance. "He's an elder statesmen who's friends with Wallin. What else is there to say?" one senior official said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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