Rebel MP reflects on year since Tory break-up
A year later, Brent Rathgeber finds himself beating the drum of electoral reform
Saturday, Jun 07, 2014 06:00 am
June 5 marked exactly one year since Brent Rathgeber made national headlines by quitting the Conservative caucus.
“It’s been an interesting year,” said the maverick MP for Edmonton-St. Albert.
On the anniversary of his resignation from the federal Conservative caucus, Rathgeber spoke to the St. Albert Gazette’s editorial board about his decision, the year since and his plans to run for re-election as an independent.
“I’m not proud of that.”
Before Rathgeber resigned from caucus to sit as an independent on June 5, a move which ignited a media storm and garnered national attention, he was already experiencing discontent.
“I wasn’t doing anything except getting more and more frustrated,” he said.
He started speaking out, criticizing government policy and even getting sent to sit in a far corner of the House of Commons’ seating plan after targeting cabinet ministers’ expense claims in a blog, highlighting Bev Oda’s famous $16 glass of orange juice.
The Prime Minister’s Office wanted the blog to come down. It didn’t.
“They came down on me hard,” he said.
But that didn’t stop Rathgeber from voting the party line 100 per cent of the time.
“I’m not proud of that,” he said.
Part of that voting pattern is deliberate, he said. But part of it is unavoidable when you spend hours at caucus meetings getting it “beat into you” how great the Conservative party is, he said.
“New and troubling levels.”
Running up to the events that would lead to Rathgeber leaving caucus – the gutting of his transparency bill – he “played the game by their rules.”
Party discipline is always a part of party politics, he said, but in Canada over the last few decades it’s been reaching “new and troubling levels.”
He pointed out that the British House of Commons voted against sending troops to Syria – with the governing Conservative MPs breaking ranks with the wishes of Prime Minister David Cameron and voting with the Labour Party.
“It was a great day for democracy. That would never happen in Canada,” Rathgeber said.
Britain’s House of Commons is nearly twice the size of Canada’s with half as many cabinet ministers, he said.
Between cabinet positions, parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs, nearly half of the Canadian Conservative caucus has a chance to get a promotion.
The opposition isn’t any better, he said, and sees themselves as a cabinet in waiting.
“Everybody here is a cabinet minister in training,” he said. So party discipline is held as people hope to make it to the front row of the House.
Rathgeber realized he was unlikely to get promoted to a cabinet that appears to be more about being representative of the Canadian population than about expertise.
“I knew after 2011 I was going nowhere with this business. Not with this party, not with this leader,” he said.
That was the year the Conservatives finally won a majority after running two minority governments.
As Rathgeber tells it, party discipline was considered important during the minority government years as the Tories looked to increase their seats. In a 24-hour news cycle, it takes just one rogue comment by an MP to land a party in trouble at the polls.
He said the promise was if the MPs could keep party discipline until then, after the reins would loosen and “then we’ll be true Conservatives.”
“The deal was broken after the 2011 election,” he said. “The hammer didn’t get any smaller.”
Still, until June 5, 2013, Rathgeber did not vote against the government even as he became vocal.
The role of MPs is no longer to represent their constituents in Ottawa. They are “simply here to represent Ottawa to you.”
“We certainly don’t elect the 22-year-old kids who run the government from Langevin block,” he said.
“This was my hill to die on.”
The gutting of Rathgeber’s transparency bill began when the prime minister arrived at caucus and started to explain how the bill was bad for the government.
Among other things, the bill was to help lower the bar on what bureaucrat’s salary levels could be revealed in an access to information request. That level was increased when the bill went to committee, and Rathgeber’s attempt to lower it again via an amendment failed earlier this year, resulting in him killing his own bill.
Though he’d had support of caucus before, that support evaporated “quicker than a snowball in hell” after the prime minister was done.
“This was my hill to die on,” Rathgeber said.
When asked at his June 6, 2013 press conference if he’d committed political suicide, he dodged the question.
“I thought I probably had. And I was okay with that,” he said. But when answering, he was careful to not close the door to running again.
When he flew back from Ottawa to have his press conference, he came back to thousands of emails and faxes from people, at least 80 per cent of whom were constituents. He said at least 95 per cent of the messages were positive about his resignation.
Rathgeber has since decided to run for re-election as an independent.
The door he chose not to shut has opened wider, he said, with offers of volunteer work and financial support.
He can’t take the financial support just yet. Even though party riding associations can fundraise year round, an independent candidate cannot until the election is called and they are formally registered as a candidate.
It’ll be a tough battle, as Rathgeber, now just a “small-c” conservative, will have to face off against his old party machine along with other parties’ candidates.
“If I were really interested in re-election, I never would have left caucus,” he said.
Re-election is the primary goal, he said, but there are secondary goals, like convincing Canadians of the need for democratic reform.
If he can convince several thousand people of that, he said, “I’ll consider that a secondary success.”
“A unique position.”
Asked what he feels he can offer voters as an independent, Rathgeber noted he can ask questions that party MPs cannot.
“I’m in a very unique position,” he said, noting he’s one of two Alberta MPs who are not Tories.
And if the next government is again a minority one, as Rathgeber predicted it could be, independent MPs and MPs who are part of parties not large enough to get official recognition – like Elizabeth May of the Green Party – could end up playing an important role.
Since he quit the Conservative caucus, Rathgeber said he’s been surprised and delighted to find there is an audience for his message of democratic reform.
“Quite frankly, we have a broken electoral system,” he said.
After supporting Bill C-13 – the cyberbullying bill – at second reading, Rathgeber plans to vote against it at third reading.
He’d hoped changes would be made addressing privacy concerns while the bill was at committee stage.
“The lawful access provisions are most troubling,” he said, noting the government uses provocative names to ensure support.
“They tie it to child pornography so you’ll buy into it,” he said.
Although he’s no longer part of a caucus, Rathgeber hasn’t stopped caring about policy. He’s drafting a private member’s bill that would create more civilian oversight of the Communications Securities Establishment Canada, one of the country’s spy agencies.
He’s waiting and hoping for an end to the moratorium on temporary foreign workers, and criticized the government’s bill that increased the minimum number of grain cars on the rails.
“It’s lunacy,” he said of the requirements of the railway companies, who were faced with new weekly minimum tonnage requirements to help get a bumper crop to port, a move that Rathgeber said means putting more cars on per train and move at a higher speed.
It was a “short-term political fix,” he said.