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Can rebel Rathgeber win?

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  |  Posted: Saturday, Jun 07, 2014 06:00 am

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Ever have the dream of walking into your boss’ office and telling him where he can stick your job?

A year ago Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber did just that. Well, perhaps it didn’t go down quite so ineloquently, but Rathgeber made it clear he could no longer be a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative caucus after the government ripped apart his private member’s bill seeking public disclosure of the expenses and salaries of highly paid public service workers.

Since that time Rathgeber has become the poster boy for what’s wrong with the Harper government and he’s set off alarm bells about the fate of democracy. Citing an insolent, all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office, run by “22-year-old kids in short pants,” and caucus meetings that were little more than brainwashing for the Harper cause, Rathgeber told the Gazette’s editorial board Thursday that democracy has taken a turn for the worse over the last ten years.

Rathgeber’s assertions about an out-of-control, power-hungry PMO and a dysfunctional Parliament, themed by a lack of civil, intelligent discourse, are unarguable. However, this is hardly a revelation. The federal governments of Martin, Chrétien, Mulroney and Trudeau were notorious for their top-down, heavy-handed approach to running the country. Indeed, it’s the by-product of party politics, which is as old as Canada itself.

Rathgeber admitted he played the good soldier role when he was first elected federally in 2008. He was true to the party’s talking points, and he promoted the party line to his constituents. According to Rathgeber, everyone, including members of the Official Opposition, are cabinet ministers in waiting. Most everyone who’s elected has ambitions of moving beyond the back benches to more powerful, senior roles. The way to do that, of course, is to please the boss. But when the boss, or in this case Harper’s office, started micromanaging Rathgeber to the point that the kids in short pants tried to censure his blog, the path to political exile began to take shape.

Today, Rathgeber is a lone wolf in the wilderness. He has ended up on the wrong side of party politics, and history has not been kind to those members of Parliament who sit as independents. But over the last year, Rathgeber has built a reputation as a spokesperson for democracy. He’s had several speaking engagements across the country and he’s become a political pundit in the national media.

If Rathgeber’s democratic reform message sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same message that propelled 52 Reformers, led by Preston Manning, to Ottawa in 1993 (ironically, one of those MPs was Harper). It’s a message built on grassroots politics, not partisan party politics.

If Rathgeber has any hope of getting elected as an independent when the federal election rolls around next fall, he’s going to have to convince us he can actually make a difference in how Canada’s Parliament functions. He’s going to ask us to choose principles over party politics – an independent MP fighting for a better democracy over a member of the governing or opposition party that can use the power of the party to garner federal money for this constituency. Fighting for principles is certainly laudable, but voters may not see it as practical.

Rathgeber’s hopes in 2015 will rest on his ability to convince them that principles matter most.


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