Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Manitoba Senate seat sits wide-open

Speculation begins about who will land Harper's plum post

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OTTAWA -- Wanted: one senator. Preferably a supporter of Stephen Harper. Must be a Canadian citizen, own land in Manitoba and be between 30 and 75 years old.

Frequent travel required. Salary starts at $132,000.

Manitoba has an open Senate seat for the first time in four years and the guessing game is on as to who will be tapped to fill it.

Former Progressive Conservative turned Independent Senator Mira Spivak retired July 12, when she reached the mandatory Senate retirement age of 75.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is widely expected to fill the vacancy before the end of summer, preventing a fall election from getting in the way of his rebalancing of the Senate ranks.

He has long complained of the Liberal dominance in the Senate and accused Liberal senators of getting in the way of his government's agenda.

But at the same time, he wants to reform the Senate, with elected senators and term limits of eight years rather than appointments. For most of his first three years in office, he left the vast majority of vacancies in the upper chamber empty, holding off until he could get Senate reform bills passed.

But in December 2008, when his government was on the precipice of being defeated by a Liberal/NDP coalition backed by the Bloc Québécois, Harper suddenly filled the 18 vacancies.

Since then, 10 more seats have come open, including Spivak's. By the end of August, another vacancy will open in Quebec.

If Harper fills all 11 of them, he will be within spitting distance of having the same number of Conservative senators as the Liberals.

There are currently 54 Liberals, 37 Conservatives, two Progressive Conservatives and three Independents.

Manitoba cabinet minister Steven Fletcher, the minister of state responsible for democratic reform, was mum Friday on when or if Harper would replace Spivak.

But it hasn't stopped the gossip mills from churning about that seat or the other ones.

So far, the person whose name is raised most often as a contender is Conservative party president Don Plett.

Plett himself said Friday for the moment he is focused solely on being the party's president, a role he has held since 2003. He was acclaimed to the position for his third term last fall.

"I'm working hard as the president of the party," said Plett.

Plett was a critical player in the 2003 merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives, which ultimately paved the way for Harper becoming prime minister.

Nationally, the next Senate appointments could become a who's who of former Tory leaders and premiers. Recently ousted Nova Scotia Tory premier Rodney MacDonald is being touted as the next senator from his province, as is former premier Bernard Lord next door in New Brunswick.

Former Ontario Conservative leader John Tory is rumoured to be in consideration for one of the Ontario spots.

Could Manitoba's former premier Gary Filmon be the next senator from Manitoba?

Or might it go to his wife, Janice Filmon, whose name came up as a possible appointment to the lieutenant-governor's gig?

If Janice Filmon got the nod, it would be a bit of déjà vu all over again as Mira Spivak is the widow of former Manitoba PC leader Sidney Spivak.


Quick sketch

MIRA SPIVAK was a senator for 26 years before she hit retirement age in July.

A former school trustee and widow of former Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader Sidney Spivak, she was appointed to the Senate in 1986 by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. She sat as a Progressive Conservative senator until 2004. When the Tories merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party of Canada, Spivak chose to sit as an Independent as she staunchly opposed the merger.

She is a red Tory, with a liberal leaning on social issues and a soft spot for the environment.

She was the deputy chairwoman of the Canadian Senate subcommittee on the boreal forest and in 2005 was given a lifetime achievement award from the Sierra Club of Canada for her work including years of efforts to protect the boreal forest, stop logging in provincial parks and expose the dangers of bovine growth hormone.

In 2006, she supported Elizabeth May's candidacy for the leadership of the federal Green party and Friday was honoured by May at a Winnipeg reception.

One of Spivak's most recent pushes was to get federal legal protection for Gatineau Park, just across the river from Ottawa. The park is almost the same geographic size as Winnipeg, is home to the famous Meech Lake and is an outdoor enthusiast's wonderland of hiking and biking trails. It is the only federal park without national park status and as such, development is eroding its boundaries.

Her three private member's bills to give it national park status didn't pass, but her last one was put aside after the government agreed to introduce its own bill this year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2009 A4

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