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Manitoba's Plett stands up for his principles

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No one who knows Sen. Don Plett would ever call him a shrinking violet. On Thursday, the feisty Tory from Manitoba reminded everyone of just how much fight he has in him.

Rising in the Senate to speak against a motion to suspend, without pay, three Conservative senators caught up in expense scandals, Plett delivered an impassioned plea for restraint.

"We are dealing with the future of three senators, three of our colleagues," Plett said Thursday afternoon. "And as the leader of the Opposition put it, 'We will be stripping them of everything except the title of senator.' This is, at the very least, premature."

The problem for Plett is the motion to suspend senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau was tabled by the Sen. Claude Carignan, the Conservative leader in the Senate.

It is a motion supported by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government.

"I do not believe, under the circumstances, those individual should be on the public payroll," Harper told the House of Commons this week.

In that context, it's not hard to see why Plett's speech and his intention to vote against the motion will be seen in the Prime Minister's Office as an act of defiance.

Plett tends to draw attention because of his long and storied history as a Tory loyalist. The man referred to in party circles as "the plumber" -- in large part because he was, in private life, a plumber -- was a former president of the Conservative national council. He was also a key figure in the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties.

Since the merger, he has been a diehard supporter of the Harper government, a key figure in national and provincial elections and a go-to strategist for ground-level political combat across the country.

He has also become a strong, eloquent supporter of the Senate, which has put him at odds with some in his party.

In an interview Thursday just a few hours after he gave the speech, Plett said his opposition to the motion to suspend the three senators is a matter of conscience. As a result, he is entitled to vote as he sees fit.

That does not mean he is unaware of the political fallout. "It was probably the toughest speech I've made in my life," he said. "But I feel very strongly about this and I needed to make my feelings known."

On the specifics of the motion, Plett argued he is not, in fact, voting against his own government. The motion tabled by Carignan is not in any way an expression of government policy, even though Harper has expressed support for it.

"I talked beforehand to (Carnigan), who is the person I am accountable to in the Senate," Plett said.

"He knew I was going to be speaking against the motion. I told him I could not support the motion, and he said he understood."

Plett, who is known to be close friends with Duffy, has been a consistent supporter of the three beleaguered senators. From the outset of the expense scandals, Plett has argued an absence of clear guidelines on how senators spend their money, and which expenses are legitimate, has been the root cause of the maelstrom we see now.

More importantly, Plett argued the Senate does not have clear rules in place about how and when to discipline senators who have broken expense rules.

As a result, the Senate is engaged in a process of punishing the three senators without knowing the full extent of what they have done.

The Senate needs a strong code of conduct and clear guidelines on how expenses should be claimed, he said. Only then will everyone be satisfied there is true due process, he added.

Plett will find some cover in the fact he is not the only Tory in the upper chamber to oppose the motion to suspend.

Senators Jean Claude Nolin and Hugh Segal have also publicly expressed concern about the motion. Nolin, in particular, complained the Senate did not have the right to function as a criminal court and dish out punishment or sanctions before due process had been completed.

However, the hard fact is Plett is defending three senators who were declared personae non gratae in their own party some time ago.

This past week, both Duffy and Wallin went on the offensive. Duffy, in particular, alleged Harper personally intervened in the expense scandal, something the prime minister has denied. Duffy further claimed Harper wanted to sacrifice the three senators as an expedient way of making the controversy go away.

Plett still maintains he is not voting against his own government, yet he acknowledges many Tories will accuse him of that. If that's the case, Plett has a response.

"I take no pleasure in this, but at the end of the day, I have my principles, and that's what I have to stand on."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 A5

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