Senators take issue with their seats (literally)

The newly-elected chair of the Senate banking committee, a Conservative, didn't want the vice-chair, a Liberal, sitting next to him. So he called a vote to kick her out of her chair. No kidding.
Senators Celine Hervieux-Payette, left, and Irving Gerstein were involved in a battle over seating arrangements at a Senate committee this week. (Canadian Press)

The so-called house of sober second thought witnessed the kind of contest normally associated with first-grade birthday parties, as a showdown erupted over seating arrangements this week.

The newly elected chair of the Senate banking committee, Conservative Irving Gerstein, didn't want the vice-chair, Liberal Celine Hervieux-Payette, sitting next to him.

When he asked her to step away from the head table, she refused.

So Gerstein, elected this week as chair, called a vote to kick Payette out of her chair.

With a Conservative majority on the committee, the motion passed Wednesday and the game of partisan musical chairs ended with Payette being forced to grab a seat farther away.

The Quebec senator remains vice-chair of the committee. Payette said she couldn't understand what Gerstein's problem was, and suggested that as his seatmate she could have helped him sometimes with translation, because he doesn't speak French.

"I found it unfortunate -- I'd say even a bit indecent," she said in an interview Thursday.

"We're supposed to work in a non-partisan way on the banking committee. I've been here 17 years; he's been here three. We have traditions....

"There was always a synnergy between the chair and vice-chair."

Gerstein stayed mum, calling it a procedural issue.

"This was just a procedural matter that was dealt with by the committee. Thank you very much," he said, brushing off additional media questions: "I gave you my answer."

House seats changing... literally

The chair fracas was just the latest in a series of incidents which prompted Liberals to demand assurances that partisanship won't be injected into the supposedly impartial process of redrawing electoral riding boundaries, which is about to get under way.

"We don't trust this Conservative party," said Liberal House leader Raymond Garneau. "This Conservative party will stoop to anything to try to give itself an electoral advantage."

As examples of the Tories' hyper-partisanship, Garneau pointed to the government's penchant for imposing limits on debate in the House of Commons and conducting the business of parliamentary committees behind closed doors.

He also pointed to the Tory phone campaign against Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and the so-called in-and-out scandal, in which the Conservative party and its fundraising arm, which Gerstein heads, pleaded guilty to exceeding the spending limit in the 2006 election campaign.

Gerstein, along with three other top party officials, were initially charged in the in-out affair but those charges were eventually dropped as part of a plea bargain.