If there is any legislation backed up in the Senate – you might blame the country’s most high profile plumber.
Conservative Senator Don Plett faces constant criticism from politicians who want to see legislation move more quickly in the Senate, and who accuse the party whip of causing delays. But in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he was quick to point out that he’s just one person, and insisted he wants to ensure that bills are properly examined.
Before former prime minister Stephen Harper appointed Mr. Plett to the Senate, he was a plumbing and heating contractor, working across the country and in remote locations with his family business that was started by his father. He was involved in community service and sports in his home province of Manitoba, serving on a number of boards. Mr. Plett said he became involved in politics when he was fifteen, volunteering for his local Member of Parliament and later becoming the President of the Conservative Party.
Mr. Plett, 69, is known for his intense partisanship and for putting his elbows up in a political fight, but those who work with him say he is an emotional person with a soft side. He admitted, “I might be opinionated; I may be a lot of things. I may even be unfair to people sometimes, not intentionally.”
He has become a powerful force in the Senate and a headache for the governing Liberals by using a number of procedural tactics to slow down legislation.
Mr. Plett said he was instrumental in negotiating a path forward on Bill C-69, which is meant to reform the federal assessment process for major energy projects. “It was a bill that was so controversial where our parties were so far apart,” he said. “As far as slowing things down, yeah, we tried to slow Bill C-69 down. We don’t like the bill.”
He has been accused recently of delaying two private members’ bills that had passed the House of Commons – one that was spearheaded by former Conservative cabinet minister Rona Ambrose that requires sexual assault training for judges, and another from NDP MP Romeo Saganash that ensures Canadian laws are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Mr. Plett denied having any involvement in delaying Ms. Ambrose’s bill from reaching committee, and he said he wants to ensure the latter bill has proper study.
Officially, he holds the title of party whip, but he said his role involves more than rallying senators before votes. He meets regularly on his own with the Government Representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, and helps decide which senators sit on committees – roles that would typically be the responsibility of the Opposition Leader in the Senate, Larry Smith.
“I am doing a lot of the negotiating on behalf of the Conservative party and moving legislation forward or stalling legislation when we can, amending legislation when we can,” said Mr. Plett.
Mr. Smith’s leadership ends with the upcoming federal election, and he knows that Mr. Plett is interested in the position.
“We’ve talked about that over time, and I’ve said to Don and he said to me, ‘I’d love to be the leader,’ and I said, ‘I don’t have a problem with that.’”
Mr. Harder said Mr. Plett is a “very effective proponent of his caucus’s perspective.”
Independent Senator Frances Lankin said it appears Mr. Plett has assumed, “de facto leadership of that caucus, and proudly.” She said Mr. Plett’s weakness is that he “does not understand how to build real relationships across the floor.”
Mr. Plett would disagree. Growing up, he would be a rough hockey player on the ice and would go for beers after the game with players from the other team. It’s no different in the Senate, he said, noting that he socializes with Liberal and Independent senators, even if it means casually grabbing a drink in someone’s office.
Conservative Senator Linda Frum said one of the things she enjoys most about Mr. Plett is the difference between his public persona and his personal one. Ms. Frum observed he benefits from the way people underestimate him.
“I think people may say that his professional background as a plumber is not the typical background for many people in the Senate or his personal style isn’t necessarily super polished, but he is sharp and thoughtful.”
“I think Don Plett would be up there as one of the top criers in the Senate,” she said, adding she turns to him for personal advice, like the guilt she felt for being away from her daughter when she was first appointed to the Senate. Ms. Frum said in opposition you do have to “have your elbows up,” and that Mr. Plett is comfortable and “revels” in that space.
Mr. Plett said often Senators are seen as “grumpy old men.” “My grandkids don’t think I’m a grumpy old man, for the most part I’m a pretty decent guy.”