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Travel commitments kept most truant Liberals from key Senate vote

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny has been on sick leave since last December. He has a heart condition that causes him to pass out without warning.

But he still turned up to vote against an omnibus government budget bill Monday that critics say contains measures the Conservative government could not have pushed through the House of Commons as stand-alone items.

Terry Mercer, a Liberal senator from Nova Scotia who has been immobilized with a back condition, was also there. So was Marie-P. Poulin who turned up on crutches. And Jean Lapointe, who is recovering from brain surgery, arrived with a bandage on his head.

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All of them managed to get to the Senate on Monday night for a critical vote on the 900-page budget bill that Liberal senators, with the help Progressive Conservatives and an independent, had hoped to divide into smaller parts.

But seven of their Liberal Senate colleagues were not in their seats.

And, as a result, the opposition attempt to excise parts pertaining to the sale of the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the privatization of the foreign arm of Canada Post, and the restructuring of environmental assessment was defeated by a margin of 44 to 48.

There are 48 Liberals who could have participated in the vote. Missing on Monday night were Liberal senators Tommy Banks, Sharon Carstairs, Pierre De Bané, Francis Fox, Serge Joyal, David Smith and Nick Sibbeston.

Liberal Raymond Lavigne is suspended from his duties after allegedly misusing Senate funds for personal use.

Mr. Fox had agreed with Conservative Senator Claude Carignan that, because Mr. Carignan had other obligations, neither would show up for the vote - a process of pairing that is accepted in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

Mr. Banks was out of the country as were Ms. Carstairs, Mr. De Bané and Mr. Joyal. Mr. Sibbeston was travelling. Mr. Smith could not be reached for comment.

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Like Mr. Fox, some of them may also have paired off with Conservatives.

Independent Senator Jean-Claude Rivest voted with the Conservatives. But the two Progressive Conservative senators voted with the Liberals as did independent Anne Cools. Which means the Liberals and the independents could have had the numbers to split the bill if not for the absences.

When that attempt failed, the bill was passed by the Senate in a vote that was not recorded. It was immediately given royal assent.

Marjory LeBreton, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, told a news conference on Tuesday that she was actually surprised by the number of Liberals who were in attendance.

"They definitely tried to defeat us and it was all hands on deck and they tried to embarrass the government," Ms. LeBreton told reporters. Four of 52 Conservative members were also absent and there was one recusal. Ms. LeBreton explained that some were ill and others had deaths in their families.

And there is nothing wrong with omnibus bills, she said, adding that previous Liberal governments have used them even when they had a majority.

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As for Mr. Kenny, he said he arrived at the Senate on Monday knowing that the attempt to hive off the controversial portions of the bill was likely to fail.

"I heard about the ones that were absent so I thought it was unlikely that we'd win the vote," he told The Globe.

But Mr. Kenny said he still showed up because "I think it's important that your caucus members know that you're supporting them and that you're part of the team." And, he said, "as I was telling some folks, I get paid to do that."

New Democrat MP Carol Hughes said she does not think travel is an excuse for missing an opportunity to split apart the bill.

"This was an important vote and they raised so much ruckus over it last week," Ms. Hughes said. "You would think that it's part of your job to be there for votes."

(Photo: Senator David Smith applauds Michael Ignatieff at the Liberal Party's retreat in Sudbury, Ont., last September. The Canadian Press)

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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