Column: Charm offensive may not work

Harper 02.JPGWhen last I visited our august Upper Chamber, senators were raging against impending exile, invective was being flung beneath the historical war paintings commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook, some were running from cameras and others escaped scrutiny through secret passageways.

Thursday, I sat in the front bench, listening to the new Speaker explain the need for such a body as his white-gloved Usher of the Black Rod stood at attention behind him.

Then I took holiday tea with Pierre Claude Nolin in his private dining room, beneath the wood carved Latin inscription “Dare to be Prudent.”

The Senate is daring to launch a charm offensive, but it’s going to take more than that to right this listing ship.

Prudence has been lacking in this place and it will be tested again by the end of March when auditor general Michael Ferguson releases results of an audit of senators’ spending habits.

The Supreme Court has told Stephen Harper he can’t unilaterally reform or abolish the place, but the prime minister is acting like the joint is toxic.

There are 16 vacancies and three senators under suspension, but Harper said Thursday no one is calling him to demand the vacancies be filled and as long as the Senate passes his legislation, that’s good enough for him. This came a couple of hours after Nolin had called for more independence and less blind partisanship in the chamber and said the number of vacancies was impairing the Senate’s ability to do its job.

Nolin said his conversation with the prime minister when he was appointed shall remain private but called the chat “interesting.” If they are as far apart as this on other matters, “interesting” is probably understating matters.

The Senate has brought most of this enmity on itself and its image is perilously close to diving deeper into the ditch if some of the whispers of Ferguson’s aggressive investigation are to be believed.

Senators are nervous, not so much because they fear a scandal on the scale of the Mike Duffy-Pamela Wallin-Patrick Brazeau-Mac Harb eruptions, but because they know it will not take much to tip this place on its side again.

(A quick aside to the auditor general: I sat at Conservative Yonah Martin’s desk and found out later I had inadvertently stolen one of her pens. Don’t blame her.)

“I think the big stories are behind us,” Nolin said.

He said he would wait for the audit to be finished, but he said he expected it to focus on a few lunches, disagreements over the definition of parliamentary functions and the need to send Christmas cards to the U.S.

“We had a (auditor general’s) report in 2012. We had a clean report,” he said.

He doesn’t see what changed between then and 2014.

Some fought the auditor. At least one is known to have balked at even an initial meeting between her and staff tooutline the process. Other senators have suggested at least one of the vacancies may have been caused by a senator who quit rather than go through the process.

Ferguson has raised questions about postage and meal receipts. He has queried why senators ignored dinner buffets during evening committee meetings, then expensed meals. The senators told him they had been discouraged from eating at committee while questioning witnesses. They told him they sent Christmas cards to the U.S. because they deal with American legislators.

If it doesn’t go beyond that, then Nolin would be correct that the big stories are behind the institution. Even then, it is questionable if its reputation can be salvaged.

If Ferguson finds irregularities on a much larger scale, Nolin would have to wonder why he took the job.

He’s well-liked by his colleagues and he has already helped morale, reinstating the Senate Christmas party, replacing what one senator has described as a dreary cocktail gathering.

Nolin has been living with cancer for four years and the Brian Mulroney appointee is a shell of the dashing figure once regularly spotted in the dining room in the old National Press Club.

He says his health is fine and an experimental treatment seems to be working, even if he considers himself a “guinea pig.”

He is an independent thinker and he wants the chamber to be more independent. He could be the man to breathe new life into a discredited institution. More likely, he is one more scandal away from finding himself unable to pull the place out of the ditch.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1.

Copyright 2014 – Torstar Syndication Services

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