Lunch with Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal: don’t make trouble for others

A high-profile Conservative Senator is retiring from the upper chamber effective in June 2014. Hugh Segal says he is going to become master of the University of Toronto's Massey College. (The Canadian Press/Michael Hudson). The Canadian Press/Michael Hudson

OTTAWA – Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal doesn’t see himself as a maverick.

He’s just a legislator with an amendment to make – a man who holds the mayo on his club sandwich.

“I didn’t sneak around, spring anything. I kept the authorities aware of where I stood,” says Segal.

“And I was quite surprised that that many people stood up in support of the amendment. I thought I did not have enough support for the amendment, so there you have it.”

The context, of course, is bill C-377 – the Conservative private member’s bill on union disclosure. Segal’s amendments to the bill, introduced before the Senate rose for the summer last week, were supported by 16 fellow Conservatives, 13 of them Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointees.

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Segal’s success in sending the legislation, which was supported by the Prime Minister’s Office, back to the House of Commons – sparked more talk of dissent in the government ranks.

But then, Segal doesn’t see it that way.

“I did not see this as an act of disloyalty. Quite the contrary,” he says.

“All we really did was give the House time to reflect, and give the government time to reflect. We didn’t kill anything under our system.”

He points out that even if Harper prorogues Parliament in the fall, the bill – which Segal calls sloppy and unconstitutional, a threat to the privacy of millions of Canadians  – would come back unamended to the Senate.

“I think the Senate has to respect democratic decisions reached by democratically-elected people. We should do what happened very, very rarely. But it is our constitutional function.”

Segal sits in a corner chair of the Carleton Grill, a restaurant in the downtown Ottawa Sheraton hotel. When he was first appointed in 2005 – a bi-partisan move by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin – Segal lived in the hotel for a few months before he found an apartment.

They had a special rate for senators.

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“It was an economic way to meet your living costs here,” says Segal, without a hint of irony, as an expense scandal engulfs the Senate.

But if he seems concerned by the ongoing backlash directed at the upper chamber, Segal doesn’t let on.

“It’s always important in politics, and any realm of life … never to take oneself too seriously,” he says. “If you look in the mirror in the morning, you see an important person – that is the beginning of falling.”

Instead, he tells a story – one from his days as chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

He remembers sending Mulroney home with eight file boxes a night – six of them focused on foreign policy.

Segal would ask his boss why he was so interested in other countries.

“His response was ‘Hughie, no world leader wakes up, turns to his wife or her husband, turns to their senior adviser first thing in the morning and says, Gee I wonder what’s up with Canada?’ Because we’re not on anybody’s trouble list.

“We don’t make trouble for others.”

The ‘wacko’ union bill

Segal believes he did his party a favour in the long-term on C-377, introduced by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert.

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The bill would have forced unions to disclose payments made to outside groups or individuals worth $5000 or more, and the names and salaries of employees paid more than $100,000.

He says it would have swept 12 million Canadians who own mutual funds or have health and life insurance into a disclosure regime, “which is completely wacko and unconstitutional.”

“Those things were a sign of the rapidity and the shallowness with which the bill was drafted.”

Segal’s amendments raised the disclosure of salaries to $444,661, the reporting threshold to $150,000 from $5,000, and exempted union locals and unions under 50,000 members.

That number, $444,661, is key: it’s the same figure Conservatives proposed when they altered former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber’s bill on public service disclosure, causing him to quit the caucus.

The Liberals in the Senate dubbed Segal’s amendment the “Rathgeber principle” – but Segal says he was taking a page from his own party’s playbook. He calls Rathgeber’s decision to quit “both unfortunate and unconstructive.”

“I said, ok, we want to have a number that reflects what the members on the elected side chose. And they chose, $444,000. That’s the number they chose,” he says.

“I thought it was actually the respectful thing to do, not as was suggested in some quarters, the mischevious thing to do.”

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The one who called it mischevious was fellow Conservative Sen. Marjory LeBreton, who stepped down as government leader in the Senate Thursday.

“I take it as a term of endearment,” says Segal. In fact the two worked together under Mulroney – LeBreton as Segal’s deputy chief of staff.

“I’m really sad she stepped down. I think she’s a great loyalist,” he says. “My instinct is that the last little while was tough.”

Segal says he has received no blowback from the PMO about the bill, even after the office subtly admonished him by releasing a statement saying it expects the Senate “will respect the will of the House of Commons should the bill be returned to the Senate.”

His instinct is that the PMO was using Hiebert’s bill to appease its anti-abortion contingent on the backbench, following a failed motion to study when life begins and a backlash over free speech in the Commons sparked by Conservative Mark Warawa.

“Running a Parliamentary government requires compromise all the time and I don’t pass judgment on it, other than to say it’s understandable,” says Segal.

“But I don’t know that compromising with one group on one issue – like right to life – is a reason to make 12 million Canadians lose their right to privacy if they happen to own mutual funds.”

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He adds that amending C-377 allowed a bill to do with free speech, championed by the late Sen. Doug Finley, to pass into law, because it sped the agenda along in the Senate.

Bill C-304, from Conservative MP Brian Storseth, repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which takes out the part of the law which allows people to complain to the Canadian Human Rights Commission about communication of hate messages by telephone or Internet.

“Now we have an amended 377 with all the options in the prime minister’s hands, and we have 304 signed into law,” says Segal.

“So that struck me – one-and-a half loaves is better than zero.”

On Senate scandals and Harper

Segal is a walking contradiction: a sitting Senator who resents what he represents.

“The core problem is that the institution itself has no legitimacy,” he says, in a distinct raspy tone.

He understands the frustration of the public, of not being able to vote out a sitting Senator.

“The notion that a third of our legislators who have power that is almost the same as an elected Member of Parliament are unaccountable to anybody, unelected, I think is a travesty to a modern democracy like ours,” he says.

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The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall over changes to the upper chamber. Segal says there should be a national referendum about whether to abolish or reform the Senate before decisions are made.

Following that, he believes there should be a first ministers meeting, with referendum results broken down by province, and a plan for constitutional resolution.

“You’ve got to bring the people, in my judgment, over to the table first,” says Segal, pouring two Splendas into an espresso.

But Segal doesn’t think the recent scandal, or his amendment in the Senate, impacts the way Canadians view the upper chamber.

“Canadians are pretty sophisticated,” he says.

“They can make a distinction between three people with an expense problem, an institutional response to a bad bill, and the broader constitutional question about whether we have to restructure how our second chamber operates.”

But he is confident Harper believes in genuine Senate reform. In fact, he has only good things to say about the prime minister.

He doesn’t believe, for instance, that Harper knew anything about the $90,000 cheque given by former chief of staff Nigel Wright, to Senator Mike Duffy.

As a former chief of staff, Segal finds the whole exercise “so outside the perimeter of what occurred to us as a way to solve these sorts of difficulties that I can’t even imagine somebody on my staff or me thinking about that as an appropriate way to proceed.”

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“There is nothing about Stephen Harper, his past, his present, his life before being leader of the party, that would lead me to believe that he would for a nanosecond accept this kind of approach. My bet is he was stunned, shocked and appalled, period full stop. And had no prior knowledge,” he says.

“I can’t imagine him saying fix it and don’t tell me how.”

So he doesn’t envision Harper stepping down?

“I think it would be disastrous if he did, because I can’t think of anybody in our party who could do as good a job as leading it as he is,” says Segal.

As for his own future, Segal says until real change is achieved in the Senate, he is happy to serve.

“You have to work in the institution as it exists, and you have to believe that doing so is part of your public duty,” he says.

“And if you don’t believe that, you should pack it in.”

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