Don Martin: The right, and wrong, way to exit the political stage
Senator Joyce Fairbairn appears at news conference in Ottawa Nov 1, 2001. Joyce Fairbairn, 73, will not return to the Senate when it resumes in the fall. (Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Wednesday, August 29, 2012 5:27PM EDT
There’s a right and a horribly wrong way for political figures to exit the stage for health reasons.
Prime examples of both have surfaced in the last week.
B.C. MP Denise Savoie resigned following a chat with her doctor.
She shared no medical details, saying only that she needed to swap her hectic lifestyle of cross-country travel for the slower pace of a former MP who recently qualified for a lucrative pension.
That’s the right way to go -- a quick, clean severance under a one-day headline.
Then there’s the most tragic departure I’ve ever witnessed.
For 28 years, Sen. Joyce Fairbairn has served in the difficult capacity of being a Trudeau Liberal Senate appointment representing the true-blue Conservative epicenter in southern Alberta.
But she has been increasingly incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease for most of this year.
She was reportedly declared legally incompetent by a geriatric psychiatrist in February and is now under constant care.
And yet, until late June, she continued to report for duty to vote as a senator -- in body, if not in mind.
Only now is bear-witness evidence surfacing that her sad condition should not have surprised anyone.
One Conservative MP confides she found Sen. Fairbairn wandering Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street in a disoriented haze and had to be guided to her residence.
Another found her unescorted in the Ottawa airport, unsure how to get downtown.
A political staffer says he found Fairbairn seated in the Senate foyer with no idea what she was doing there.
The sad reality of Alzheimer’s dementia is that, sooner or later, someone must step forward to provide clear-eyed thinking to victims being engulfed by a thick mental fog.
Clearly the Liberal leadership in the Senate failed in its responsibility to ensure one of their own was in command of their senses while voting on important bills.
While one insider suggests she might have been declared mentally incompetent later than February, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to suggest Fairbairn was in mental distress last spring.
It’s equally perplexing that her niece and the Liberal leader’s chief of staff in the Senate, both designated by Fairbairn as agents before her illness took hold, didn’t sound any alarms about her inability to work.
The theory being floated in partisan circles has it that the Liberals were desperate to hang on to her only Alberta spot just for the sake of having one more Senator on their side of the ledger. This just doesn’t make sense.
The Conservatives dominate every Senate vote now, so having one more Liberal in the Red Chamber would not have changed any outcome.
Besides, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is confined to filling her future Alberta vacancy from the results of this year’s senator elections, so it’s not like he’s salivating to appoint another patronage pig to the trough.
Perhaps the Liberals should’ve gone to Conservative Senate leader Marjory LeBreton, who has a huge heart when it comes to people with failing health. She has fond memories of Fairbairn and says she would’ve helped negotiate a retirement with honour.
But as it stands now, a dignified woman is being held up to ridicule as a mindless participant in Red Chamber business.
As an advocate for the disadvantaged and strong voice for her province, Joyce Fairbairn deserved better.
As her mind failed her, it appears her closest friends and colleagues betrayed her memory -- literally and figuratively.