Q&A: Brent Rathgeber on his resignation and Conservative principles

'For the sake of the country, we gotta turn this ship around'

Jason Franson/CP

Brent Rathgeber is expected to return to the House today to take his new seat as the independent MP for Edmonton-St. Albert. I spoke with him yesterday about his resignation, his time as an MLA in Alberta and his concerns about both the operations of the Conservative caucus and the power of the Prime Minister’s Office. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Q: Was there a point when it started to seem like this was headed in this direction, that the thought first crossed your mind that you might actually leave the caucus?

A: Well, it’s been evolving I would say for about a year. It was last April when I blogged about the F-35 and how I thought that that procurement was so awkwardly handled. And then, of course, in late June was orange juice and limousines. And that’s when I started to get the heat. That’s when I started to get the message, in not-so-subtle terms, that the expectation of me was not to critically and objectively assess the government and vet the government. And I have always supported the government. They, being the PMO and the whip’s office, did not agree with my understanding of the role of a backbencher in the Westminster model and that’s to hold the government to account while supporting it. You can be a constructive critic, you don’t have to be a blind cheerleader to still be a loyalist. In fact, I think the constructive critic does a bigger favour to the government than a blind cheerleader because the critic will point out problems before they bubble into debacles, where the blind cheerleader will keep blindly cheering at imminent policy derailment.

But regardless, I have no delusions that my understanding of the role of a government backbencher is the majority or, for that matter, held by anybody else but perhaps me. I think there’s a few others that understand it. I don’t know that anybody else really practices it, except maybe on a specific issue-by-issue basis if you happen to be a so-con or something like that.

So it started, I think, last March or April where I got heat over my F-35 comments and then I got a lot of comments, heat after the late June blog post on Bev Oda and ministerial limousines on the Hill especially. So over the summer I started to begin to ponder this. Do I fit in with this club? And then when we came back in the fall, it’s been progressing. So as time went on it became more and more evident to me that I was different than them. That I was not cut out to be a blind cheerleader. That I was not cut out to read talking points. I was not cut out to vote as instructed, as opposed to critically assessing a piece of legislation or a motion and voting how I think it should be voted upon or my assessment of [how] my constituents might think it should be voted upon.

And then there was the complicating matter of C-461. C-461 kept me in caucus a lot longer than I think I otherwise would have been. Because I held out hope against hope that if I stayed in caucus I would be able to somehow—and I knew that this was a long shot, but I held out hope nonetheless that I would have more support for my bill than if I was an independent. So I stayed in longer than I think I otherwise would have. And if I were to guess I would say by two months. But I knew the government was intent on gutting my bill and my calculation was if I left caucus earlier in the spring, there was zero chance that I’d get any Conservatives to break ranks with leadership. If I stayed in caucus it would still be a slim chance, but any gambler will tell you that slim is better than none.

Q: What about the argument that you should have stayed in caucus because it’s easier to make change within caucus than without?

A: Well, I think the story of the last six days demonstrates the fallacy in that argument. I was in the caucus. I had a piece of legislation that was largely supported by the caucus. [Rob] Nicholson initially championed my bill at $188,000. Caucus approved my bill at $188,000. But it’s only when cabinet had the final sign off that things went sideways. So I was in the caucus, pushing a bill that had widespread support in caucus and you know how that ended. It ended very badly. So I dispute the notion that you can do more in caucus than you can outside the caucus. As an independent I obviously will never get a private member’s bill passed, but I won’t have another slot this Parliament anyways. But what I will be able to do is ask unscripted, unvetted questions once every six days, I think, in QP and certainly won’t go through any of the hassles with respect to members’ statements and tomorrow I’ll be able to vote on a private member’s bill that I think has merit in enhancing the powers of the parliamentary budget officer to do what I think Parliament’s job is. Parliament’s job is to hold government to account, not to cheerlead for government or make government look good. It’s to provide a check on government. And I think there’s merit in [Thomas] Mulcair’s bill. It’s not perfect and I don’t suspect it’s going to pass, but I think it has merit in principle and therefore I will vote on it based on the merit of the bill as opposed to on the voting instructions of the chief government whip.

Q: How much of your current situation is informed by your experience in Alberta. I know you disagreed with the government in Alberta at times, you clashed with them at times, publicly. Does this experience follow from that experience in any way?

A: Yeah, they’re apples and oranges. [Ralph] Klein ran a very democratic caucus. We had actual votes in caucus. Standing policy committees voted. I don’t know how familiar you are with the auto insurance debate of 2003, but I kept that thing off the floor of the House for over a year, where the Minister of Finance at the time would bring this bill to the standing policy committee on economic development and finance, these are caucus committees, not legislative committees, and the process was you had to get a positive vote … Klein ran a much more democratic operation where if a minister wanted to put a bill on the floor they had to get it through the standing policy committee with an actual show of hands vote and then it went to the full caucus where you’d also have to have a show of hands vote. And through the combination of those two hurdles, I was able to keep that legislation off the floor of the Alberta legislature. And eventually it came back and did get passed and tabled in slightly improved form, albeit not near to what I thought… I mean, I was opposed to it entirely, but there were some minor improvements, including a sort of sunset clause, a mandatory review clause after five years because I had raised so many concerns that some of these infringements on individuals’ legal rights were going to require further study. So they attached that and there were some other amendments, but the point is, procedurally, it was very, very different. A minister just can’t stand up and say, this is going to be the bill, this is what we’re going to do, any questions, okay next. That’s not the way things work in Alberta. Alberta MLAs had two opportunities to really, really vet government legislation and that was in the standing policy committees and in the caucus where there were actual votes. Normally the votes were, it was obvious that it was a yea or a nay, but if it was close, the whip would make people hold their hands up and she would count. And if there were more yeas than nays, it went forward and if there were more nays and yeas, it didn’t. And there were no circumventing of those rules. A minister could bring it back, given there was some time, I think it had to be a month, and there had to be some change, you couldn’t reintroduce a bill that you didn’t get a yea on identically. Some of the changes were cosmetic, but nonetheless, you couldn’t resubmit the same bill. So a very different process.

Q: Is there any chance that the Conservative party changes the way it works and gets to a point where you would consider coming back?

A: Well, that’s two questions. I would say those are both very, very unlikely. I mean, I suppose, hypothetically, if the party were to reinvent itself, if it were to retool, if it would recalibrate and grasp its founding principles of respect for constituents and constituents before party and the conservative principles that I adhere to: respect for taxpayers, balanced budgets, limited role for the state in the economy, no corporate welfare… you know, sure. But do I realistically think any of that’s going to happen after the Calgary convention? No, I don’t. But I do think there’s going to be some discussion at the Calgary convention, maybe not on the floor or during the debates, but certainly in the watering holes and in the hallways, about what’s happened. And some pundits have suggested that I represent a lot of the base in terms of my frustration and based on the outpouring of support that I’ve received both inside and outside the constituency, I think there’s something to that.

And I’m hopeful. And this needs to be said. I don’t have any axes to grind with the Conservative party. I encouraged my board to attend the convention in two weeks in Calgary. I want this party to reinvent itself and retool because they’re the government for the next two and a half years, at a minimum, probably longer. And for the sake of the country, we gotta turn this ship around because it’s been sailing kind of aimlessly, certainly the last few months, but I would suggest the last couple years. I hope things improve. And I hope my former board is part of that process. Because for the sake of the country, we need a good government and we need effective legislation. So this process won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. I hope that my resignation has brought some light onto some problems. I know it has. I’m overwhelmed as to how much attention has been shone on this.

So hypothetically, yes. But I’m not holding my breath that the party is going to reinvent itself on a timeline that could easily facilitate what you suggested. And besides, they’re making that more and more difficult every day. Because in typical PMO fashion, rather than address the message, they attack the messenger. And that neither surprises me nor particularly hurts me because that’s just their modus operandi. And without any logical legitimacy. When they start making ridiculous statements, like, he should do good by him and his constituents and resign and run in a by-election, in light of David Emerson, I mean that just smacks of hypocrisy and lack of credibility.

Q: You’ve suggest that the situation with Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy flows from the executive having too much power or too much control over the legislature. Can you explain that? 

A: I think it is an evolution of the sense of near omnipotence, if not omnipotence, among the people that work in the Prime Minister’s Office. And it is amazing to watch, even at the lowest levels. When PMO staffers will phone my staff and tell them to take a blog down or tell them to tell your boss to stop talking to the media. It actually causes my staff to have an emotional reaction, they live in fear of these people. These staffers can do anything—well, within very few limits. They can instruct a committee to deep-six Mark Warawa’s motion in the absence of any evidence that it wasn’t voteable. They can gut Rathgeber’s transparency bill, notwithstanding there wasn’t a single witness that testified that $444,000 was a better number than $188,000—in fact, the National Citizens’ Coalition and the taxpayers federation said it should be lowered, that was the only evidence. Jennifer Stoddart, the privacy commissioner, said $188,000 doesn’t raise any privacy concerns and, in fact, is in keeping with best practices even with respect to private sector, corporate disclosure. So I mean, there was just no logical, cogent reason to do what they did, but they did it. And I think being able to do that, being able to gut a legislator’s private member’s bill or deep-six a private member’s motion on gendercide it creates a sense of near omnipotence—I can’t think of a better word.

The most powerful institution within the parliamentary precinct is Langevin Block and they believe that they can fix just about any problem, just because it comes from PMO. And that has evolved and that has created, I think, a sense that we can make an expense scandal go away. We can just make this go away and this is how we’re going to do it. And you saw how that turned out. Not well.

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