Q&A: Brent Rathgeber on his ill-fated run as an Independent

Former Independent MP Brent Rathgeber talks to Maclean’s about his unsuccessful run for re-election

<p>Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber speaks about his decision to quit the federal Conservative caucus in St. Albert, Alberta on Thursday June 6, 2013. Rathgeber says there is a lack of commitment to transparency in the government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson</p>

Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber speaks about his decision to quit the federal Conservative caucus in St. Albert, Alberta on Thursday June 6, 2013. Rathgeber says there is a lack of commitment to transparency in the government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Independent MP Rathgeber speaks during Question Period in House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Unlike the vast majority of candidates in the 42nd general election, Brent Rathgeber can take full credit for the ballots cast for his candidacy. Those 11,662 votes were not shared with party or leader, but unquestionably for him.

Unfortunately for Brent Rathgeber, those 11,662 votes represented less than 20 per cent of all votes cast in the riding of St. Albert–Edmonton, rather fewer than the 26,769 cast for the Conservative candidate (and just fewer than the 13,380 for the Liberal candidate).

Thus ended Rathgeber’s bid to join the rare class of individuals elected to the House of Commons as an Independent.

Rathgeber was first elected as a Conservative in 2008 and re-elected in 2011, but quit the Conservative caucus in 2013. He fully emerged then as a champion for reform and embarked on a fascinating year-and-a-half run as an independent-acting and free-speaking MP, perhaps becoming the most interesting man in the House of Commons (or at least the member of the 41st Parliament whom I spent the most words writing about).

On the occasion of his defeat, he and I spoke about what happened, the realities of Canadian democracy, the state of the Conservative party, whether he regrets leaving the party, and what, if anything, might change.

Q. What was your reaction to that result? Did you foresee it?

A. No, I was quite disappointed. I mean, we had done internal polling and there had been public polling done and it indicated that we were not going to win, but that it was going to be much closer, and that we would be solidly in second place. Putting on my pundit hat, and having talked to a number of people in the last 48 hours, I have a pretty good sense of what happened. There was a lot of movement in the last week, and there was a lot of movement in the last 48 hours. Edmonton was not immune from the Trudeau surge, because two Edmonton seats turned red. So that was infectious and we caught that. I would suspect that progressives and fence-sitters whom I was counting on voting for me jumped on the Trudeau bandwagon at the last second, and I think that probably moved 3,000 to 4,000 votes, maybe 5,000, from my column to the Liberal column. And then that had an equally powerful opposite reaction. As the last polls started coming out that had Trudeau clearly out in the lead, there were some conservatives who were going to vote for me, but were so fearful of a Trudeau government, especially the prospect of a Trudeau majority government, that they voted blue to make sure that St. Albert–Edmonton remained a blue seat. So I think I probably lost equal numbers of votes because of both of those phenomena. Had those two phenomena not occurred, I would have lost narrowly, as opposed to by the big margin that I did lose by.

Q. Did it feel as if you had a chance? Did you think, at any point: “Maybe I can win this”?

A. I never felt particularly confident about this election. My spidey sense at the door is pretty good. In the last election, I used to say, after a night of door knocking, that six out of 10 doors are voting for me. I was right, because I got 64.5 per cent last time. This time, sometimes at the end of a door-knocking shift, I would say, yeah, we might get four out of 10 and then, the next night, we’d be in Edmonton and I might get two out of 10. That’s sort of where I thought I would be. I thought I would be at six out of 20, or 30 per cent.

Q. How often did you hear from people who didn’t feel there was any reason to vote for an Independent candidate?

A. Oh lots. I mean, it’s a real mental leap, which I’m still sort of perplexed by, because, municipally in Alberta, we don’t have parties, so people have some familiarity with voting for candidates. But at least 20 times in a 200-house door-knocking shift, you would get that: What’s the advantage of voting for Independents? Some people said: You can do that? You can run as an Independent? You don’t have to be affiliated with a party? So it was a major mental hurdle for people to abandon what is their normal, and that is to vote for either party A, party B or party C. That’s obviously why so few Independents get elected. The reality is, and political scientists have shown this, that, in a federal or provincial election, most candidates are probably five per cent of the equation, maybe 10 per cent, if they’re really, really good or really, really bad, but that 90 per cent of the people vote based on the leader or the party or some combination thereof. So it took a lot for people to get out of that thinking, notwithstanding the fact that I think they liked me personally, and certainly the social media commentary post-mortem has been very supportive and sad: Some people are very sad to see me go; there are a couple who aren’t. I’ll have to think about this for some time, because it really was difficult at the door. The sophisticated political observers know no problem, they get it, they understand and they’ll either decide to vote for me or not vote for me. But the casual political observer, the person who doesn’t think about this stuff until four days before the election, and then maybe not even, it was a very difficult conversation at the door to explain to them the benefits of Independent representation.

Q. Does it make you wonder whether the idea even of an Independent MP is effectively doomed or that it’s almost a hopeless cause?

A. Well, that’s two elections in a row now. I think, in 2008, André Arthur and Bill Casey were both elected. But 2011 and 2015 were shutouts. If anybody had a shot in this election, it had to have been me, and I don’t just mean true Independents. Guys like Bruce Hyer, who switched from NDP to Green, did very poorly. So I think, yes, in federal elections, it’s a choice between well-recognized brands: NDP, Liberal, Conservative and, in some cases, Green. People are very comfortable with the fact that we elect parties and we make our choices based largely on the leaders of those parties, and that Independent representation has limited value. I think that’s unfortunate, but I’m resigned—I mean, that was the ballot question in St. Albert. The ballot question was: Do you want a partisan representative who is going to represent you to Ottawa, or do you want somebody who is going to represent an Ottawa party to you? And Michael Cooper, the MP-elect, was very candid about it and he would respond: If you want to get things done, you have to be part of a team. If you want to get things done, you have to be sitting at the table. Now, he falsely assumed that the table was going to be blue. He’s going to be sitting in the Opposition benches. But that was the debate. This was a debate on representative democracy. And 80 per cent of the people who voted, voted for a party rep. So that’s a pretty convincing litmus test that people vote for parties. The issue is: Which one are they going to vote for? It couldn’t be clearer to me. I think it’s unfortunate, but I’m resigned to accepting that. That’s why I said on Monday night: That ends it for me, because I am so jaded against the party system and its structure and its follow-the-leader and sing-from-the-same-songbook, even on a file such as the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] or temporary foreign workers. These are perfect files where there is no way representatives can sing from the same song sheet. Trudeau said during the campaign that he wasn’t going to take a firm position on TPP, but, once he did, it would be a whipped vote. It’s counterintuitive to Independent representation. If you have a riding in rural Quebec where you have dairy farmers, you need to be opposed to this. Conversely, if you have a riding where people export lumber or petroleum products, you need to be in favour of that. But our system has devolved into something much different, where whatever the party leader’s view is, everybody in that caucus is going to take the same position.

Q. Would changing the rules governing fundraising for Independent candidates make a big enough difference? Or would changing the rules governing Parliament make any difference?

A. Regarding the fundraising, I would have to say no. Money turned out not to be a problem for us. We may have spent more money than the Conservatives in this election; I’m not sure. Although we had zero dollars in the bank, it came from everywhere. It came from Edmonton, it came from St. Albert, it came from every province in the country. We still have money left over, so we’re going to have to have a big volunteer appreciation because we can’t keep it; whatever’s left has to go back to the receiver general. The only disadvantage is we started a little slower. We weren’t able to do any data-tracking or any advertising pre-writ, but we were certainly able to have all the lawn signs, all the brochures, all the local newspaper advertising; we did have a research company that did some tracking. Money turned out not to be a problem.

The rules of Parliament? I don’t think so. First of all, in this part of the world, people don’t follow Parliament particularly closely. I bet most people don’t know that CPAC is on channel 125 on the Edmonton Shaw cable package. A lot of people didn’t watch the debates, because they couldn’t find them, because nobody knows where CPAC is. So if you changed the rules of Parliament so that individuals had more questions, or were allowed more speaking allotments, I don’t think it would be of much notice. Your magazine awarded me a very prestigious award last year. I don’t think that that persuaded a lot of people. I mean, obviously, it didn’t. Of course, the parties reinforce this. As I said, my main competition, continually at the doors, as I understand it, and certainly at the public forums, continually harped on the fact that [the party system] is how you get things done; you need to be part of a team. “Brent’s been a strong voice, but he’s a voice in the wilderness,” and clearly people accept that; they’re voting for a party and they’re voting for a party leader. There’s no meaningful debate as to whether or not the parties are too strong and whether they need to be cut back and whether or not Independent representation has a place in governance. That debate just isn’t happening. I don’t think there’s really much of an appetite for democratic reform generally. Even Senate reform did not come up frequently at the door or at the forums. The big topics were the economy, the military mission in Iraq and Syria, Syrian refugees and this nonsensical debate about the niqab. Democratic reform and the state of Canadian democracy, including the Senate, were really not prominently featured in the national debate, and certainly not on the doors that I knocked on in St. Albert–Edmonton.

Q. Do you regret leaving the Conservative party?

A. Oh god, no. I’m stung, not because the loss was not unexpected; I’m strung by the magnitude of the loss. But I could not have run under that banner, personally. I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have stayed in that caucus after June 2013. I wasn’t sleeping, I was becoming depressed, I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be the cheerleader and part of the communication machinery of the PMO that they expected me to be. When I left, I felt liberated, I felt better, I was sleeping better. The only options for me were not to run again or to run as an Independent. Running for them wasn’t an option, because I don’t think they would have had me, but that’s neither here nor there. I knew that running as an Independent was going to be a tough, tough task. And it was. And it failed, but it puts me exactly where I would have been, had I not run again: a private citizen. Running as a party candidate—the Liberals pursued me, as did the Libertarian party—I couldn’t have done it. It’s not in my DNA anymore, to kowtow to a leader and kowtow to unelected staffers in the leader’s office and to take positions that are contrary to the best interests of my constituents, just because that’s the leader’s position . . . I didn’t think I was going to run when I quit in June 2013. I was pretty much convinced that this was it, that I was just going to run out the clock, then go back to some sort of private life. But, you know, the response was overwhelming and we got thousands of emails—5,000, I think, about half from the constituency and half from outside the constituency—calling me a hero and praising me for standing up to the Harperites and praising my integrity and honour . . . So I thought I would give it a shot.

In my view, in the 41st Parliament, there was no voice of fiscal conservatism in that House. You know, Scott Brison, a little bit. But the questions that I asked in the House [concerned] fiscal conservatism and respect for taxpayers. And I wasn’t able to do that when I was in the caucus. So no, no regrets.

Q. How do you feel about the ideas you championed for parliamentary and democratic reform? Do you think they’ll have any hope in this Parliament? 

A. I guess there’s always hope. Mr. Trudeau has made some of the right platitudes about democratic reform. Expelling his senators from the caucus, although seeming to be a strange move at the time, was probably a move in the right direction . . . I think he’s talking about some kind of committee to screen potential applicants, then appoint them on the basis of merit, as opposed to partisan pedigree. That would be a good move, in my view, given the very limited things that you can do to the Senate without opening up the Constitution . . . He’s talked about more open votes, but then he makes all his candidates be staunch pro-choice candidates. I don’t disagree with him on the issue; I disagree with the autocratic way in which he handled it. And the TPP, he doesn’t know which way he’s going to vote, but all of his caucus is going to vote in the same way.

I guess I do need to be a little bit cynical here, because if anybody was the champion of democratic reform, it was the party that bore that name. It was Preston Manning’s party and Stephen Harper was in the class of 1993. If anybody could have championed democratic reform, I think it would have been Preston Manning’s Reform party, once they got into power in some machination thereof. [But] they went in the opposite direction. I think they were the least democratic. They broke the record for time allocation, they broke the record for omnibus bills. Their predecessors were not guiltless, in terms of omnibus legislation or time allocation, but the Harperites took it to new and dangerous levels. I wrote this in my book: Democratic reform and cleaning up Parliament, that’s the mantra of the opposition. “Yeah, we’re going to become more open, we’re going to become transparent, we’re going to be better than the guys who do it.” Everybody says that. Then they get in there and they do just the opposite, because reforming Parliament doesn’t serve the interests of a majority prime minister. The interests of a majority prime minister are served by a compliant, deferential caucus. I hope I’m wrong, but I am cynical.

Q. So what happens for you now? What are you going to do?

A. I’m going to take some time off. I need to think about that. I’m surprised by the magnitude of my loss, but I’m not surprised by my loss, so I’ve been sort of half mentally preparing myself for some months now, and certainly for some weeks. But there’s lots that I can do. I’m a lawyer. I miss law. I think I was good in the courtroom, maybe better in the courtroom than I was in Parliament, because, in the courtroom, decisions are made based on actual facts and logic, not emotional pleas such as how we should be fearful of the niqab, to use an extreme example of how you try to light emotional fires under people. But that doesn’t fly in the court of law, where you need actual facts and actual evidence and arguments based on logic, not on fear and appeals to bias and worst instincts.

So there’s that. I get a decent severance, courtesy of the taxpayer, so that gives me the luxury of time to figure out what I want to do. I’ve been thinking I have another book in me. Now would be a good time to write it, because, as I say, I’m on a very comfortable severance package. What do you think of a book on conservatism in Canada and Alberta?

Q. That could be interesting, and there’s probably no better time than the present to write that book. 

A. Yeah, I’ve thought for some time that there was cognitive dissonance within the federal Conservative party and how it didn’t appeal to  fiscal conservatives. Social conservatives were completely shut out and democratic reformers were turned inside out and became autocratic control freaks. I don’t know what aspect of conservatism was represented by Mr. Harper toward the end. There seemed to be only one, all-consuming goal, and that was to stay in power.

Q. Do you come away from this feeling hopeful? Do you feel you at least fought the good fight?

A. I’m glad you asked that. I take no personal pleasure from this, but I have some confidence that the change in government and the demise of Mr. Harper is, in some small way, due to my advocacy against his management style. Not locally, because the Conservatives were re-elected here, but my book and my national profile was not insignificant, from time to time, and my shining the light on the autocratic, dictatorial style that they operate through the PMO—people were paying attention, maybe more so in other parts of the country than my own riding. For a number of reasons, I don’t want to take credit for his loss because a) that would be inaccurate and b) I take no comfort in what he’s going to be replaced by, but, nonetheless, I think that my speaking out on behalf of Parliament and on behalf of parliamentary supremacy and the role of Parliament in holding government to account and holding government in check, I think that message did resonate with thousands of people from coast to coast to coast, and, in some small measure, accounted for what happened on Monday night and the fate of Mr. Harper and the Conservative party.

The reason I don’t want to take much credit for it is because I’m not happy with the result. I don’t have great confidence that Mr. Trudeau has the experience to lead a country as big and as diverse as Canada. What I desperately wanted was either one of them in a minority situation with a strong Parliament to keep them on a short leash and to keep their feet on the fire. I think Mr. Harper was actually a better prime minister in the minority days than he was in the last 4½ years when he could steamroll like a bulldozer through Parliament and didn’t have to compromise and didn’t have even listen to opposition amendments, much less accept them. I think all three leaders, quite frankly, of the major parties are very, very weak. I was hoping for a strong Parliament to keep a weak government on a short leash. I wanted to be part of that strong Parliament. I was very much hoping for a minority Parliament, where democratic reforms, such as I and Elizabeth May, and maybe Bruce Hyer and others, would be in some sort of position to leverage support for, whoever the government turned out to be in exchange for some democratic reform: breaking up omnibus bills, amending the standing orders for the use of time allocation, freeing up backbenchers in all but confidence matters. I don’t think any of that is going to happen, but I do very much hope that I’m wrong.