On Marjory LeBreton’s departure

Over the course of the afternoon, I’ve heard people express surprise that Government Leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, decided to step down from the post in advance of the cabinet shuffle. I’m not sure why exactly, given everything that has gone on.

The first and most obvious reason why she would step down now is that it was her 73rd birthday, and she would have reached the age of mandatory retirement before the 2015 election. By opting to see the post filled now would allow that continuity in cabinet leading up to the election. That the PMO has stated that the new Leader of the Government in the Senate (LGS) won’t be in cabinet is a problem that I tackled in a previous post.

And then there are the less obvious reasons, mainly that the Conservative senate caucus was getting restive, and bristling at LeBreton’s particular style of management. That style of late has been nothing short of bullying lately, and things very much came to a head over the issue of C-377, the union transparency bill that was eventually gutted by LeBreton’s own Conservative senators and sent back to the Commons. During that process, LeBreton was hauling members of the Senate banking committee into her office and threatening them with removal if they didn’t allow it to pass (note: link is paywalled), which resulted in a compromise that the Conservatives on the committee read a statement that the problems were so great that they decided to let the whole chamber deal with them, which is why they passed it unamended. Other Senators were called out in caucus meetings and threatened with expulsion if they dared to vote with the Liberals against the bill. And all Senators objected to being told what to do by Conservative staffers who are younger than their own children, as the Chief of Staff’s office was calling them up and telling them how to vote.

This in turn led to the start of a rebellion. According to the sources I spoke to, a group of Senators flocked to Senator Hugh Segal with the talk of resurrecting a Progressive Conservative caucus if things continued to go as they had under LeBreton. Others were calling up the Chief of Staff and actively lobbying to have her shuffled out when the shuffle came up. Overall, there was a growing sense of discontent with her leadership – the figure I was given was some 80 percent of the Anglophones in the Senate caucus were unhappy and wanted her gone. This kind of pressure no doubt contributed to her decision to exit when she did.

Which of course leaves the speculation as to who is going to replace her, and it’ll be a calculation as to someone who is both experienced in the ways of the Senate, yet loyal to Harper. Remember that it takes at least three years for a Senator to get completely up to speed with the job of being a Senator, the rules and procedures of the Upper Chamber, and how it operates as part of Parliament as a whole. Many Harper appointees have less than those requisite three years, and if a newer Senator is appointed as a replacement, it will be an indication that the PMO wants a much tighter leash and is not interested in having a Senate leader who has any notions about independent thought – even though that independence is one of the hallmarks of the Senate, and one of the main reasons why Senators are appointed as opposed to elected.

While a great many people would like Senator Segal to be that choice, his rebellion over C-377 makes that less likely – as is the fact that he is unabashedly a Red Tory, and not quite “blue” enough for the current Conservative party. Segal also has important duties to carry out as Canada’s representative to the Commonwealth, and has been doing a lot of work as one of the Eminent Persons who drafted the report that led to the creation of the Commonwealth Charter.

For a time, there was talk that the party was grooming Senator Pamela Wallin as a potential replacement for LeBreton. That Wallin’s expenses are now under a cloud of suspicion and her audit is apparently going to be forwarded directly to the RCMP means that ambition, if it did indeed exist, is now forever tainted.

Those affected by the spending scandals in the Senate will also eliminate some of the loyalists like Carolyn Stewart Olsen, whose role in the alleged “whitewashing” of the Duffy audit report will make her toxic to the consideration.

The current Deputy Leader of the Senate is Senator Claude Caignan, so it would bolster Harper’s Quebec credentials to consider him. He’s also got four years of experience by this point, and the Deputy Leader experience gives him a good grasp of the Senate rules and procedures.

Other potential considerations might include Senator Gerald Comeau, an Acadian from New Brunswick who has recently assumed leadership of the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee, and Senator Linda Frum’s name has been bandied about by people who think that she would be a fair person in the role.

The one person who would be guaranteed to upset a great number of the more moderate Conservatives on the Senate benches would be the appointment of Senator Don Plett, former party president and a partisan loyalist. This would not be the choice of anyone interested in any kind of bridge-building within the Senate caucus.

If I had my say, I would suggest someone like Senator Raynell Andreychuk, a former provincial judge and former ambassador, and who is well respected within the institution. As a Mulroney appointee, she has the years of experience, but again, it remains to be seen if she has the demonstrated loyalty that Harper would be looking for in such a role.