Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber

Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber

On June 5, MP Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton-St. Albert) announced he would resign from the Conservative caucus. The immediate cause of Rathgeber’s decision was the government and his colleagues opposition to his private member’s bill that sought to disclose the expenses and salaries of government bureaucrats and CBC employees earning more than $188,000; Conservative members of the Tory-dominated House Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee examining the private member’s bill (C-461, The CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act) supported it but increased the disclosure cut-off to $444,661.

After that vote, Rathgeber informed his constituency association of his “difficult” decision that he was resigning from caucus to sit an independent. He explained on his blog that “this decision and my comfort level in caucus has been evolving for at least a year.” He cited the cabinet expenses of former minister Bev Oda and the current scandal involving senate expenses and said: “I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked,” in opposition. He said he came to the “inescapable conclusion” that the government’s “lack of support” for C-461 was part of an overall “lack of support for transparency and open government generally.”

But more importantly, Rathgeber explained how he would approach his new role as an MP:I still support and greatly respect the Prime Minister; I continue to question the decisions and actions of many of his advisors.  I will continue to support the government generally, but not unequivocally.  I will deploy my independent vote on a case by case, issue by issue basis.  I will support the government when warranted — which incidentally was always my understanding of the proper role of a government backbencher, save for in matters of confidence.”

Rathgeber elaborated on this point when he talked to reporters in Edmonton the day after resigning from caucus. He said the Prime Minister’s Office staff expected MPs to act “like trained seals.” He added: “When you have a PMO that tightly scripts its backbenches like this one attempts to do, MPs don’t represent their constituents in Ottawa, they represent the government to their constituents.”

Rathgeber also said, “I do believe that the PMO has too much power, that they don’t properly respect the legislators and most importantly, there is not a proper degree of separation between the legislature and the executive.”

Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, noted that Rathgeber is not rated as pro-life by CLC but has voted pro-life and pro-family about 75 per cent of the time. Still, he admires Rathgeber’s stand, and more importantly, his understanding of the role of MP. “Most MPs are happy to take orders,” Hughes told The Interim. “To stand when told to stand, to relay the day’s talking points, and to go back to their ridings to deliver the government’s message.” However, Hughes said that is not how parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Hughes said, “we elect MPs to follow their conscience and represent their constituents’ best interests, but too many serve as representatives of the party to their voters rather than the other way around.”

Hughes’ views are supported by academics formerly sympathetic to the ruling Conservatives. University of Calgary political science professor Barry Cooper said in a Calgary Herald column that Rathgeber, a former lawyer, “understands by the law of the Constitution, his job is to represent his constituents in Parliament and the job of Parliament is to hold the government to account … it is not his job to present the views of the executive to the people of Edmonton-St. Albert.”

Sun Media reported that MP Brad Trost (CPC, Saskatoon-Humboldt) said that he hoped the Prime Minister’s Office “won’t reject” Rathgeber’s criticism and said it was time for the party to “reflect” on “how do we get back to those core principles.” Trost also said the dissent in the party should not be over-stated but that there is some “friction” within the Tory caucus and “that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

MP Mark Warawa (CPC, Langley) tweeted support to Rathgeber: “You are a man of integrity and will be missed.” Warawa had his private member’s motion condemning sex-selective abortion ruled non-votable by a parliamentary rules committee in March.

According to the Hill Times other pro-life Conservative MPs such as Stephen Woodworth (Kitchener Center) and Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin) said they admired Rathgeber’s stand but wished he stayed within caucus. They also both denied being put on a short-leash by the PMO despite their openly pro-life views.

Rathgeber said the Prime Minister has “complete control” over his caucus and “for me, that’s a bad thing.”

Hughes said CLC has always primarily evaluated individual candidates for elected office and not the party or leadership because each MP or provincial representative is supposed to put his or her views and values before the voters along with the party platform for consideration during an election and provide their best judgment while in office. “That is the way our democracy is supposed to work and Rathgeber’s decision to quit caucus is an excellent teaching moment for Canadians.” Hughes said he is skeptical that the PMO will learn from the episode.