The Commons: Brent Rathgeber and Stephen Harper’s control issues

The member for Edmonton-St. Albert stands in judgment

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand</p>

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

More than two-thirds of the way through Question Period, perhaps only to make mischief, the New Democrats sent up Mathieu Ravignat to wonder aloud if the government would support a bill that would compel floor-crossers to face by-elections before taking a seat with another party.

It was not the Minister of Democratic Reform, Tim Uppal, who stood to take this, but Rona Ambrose, the Minister of Public Works, representative of a riding adjacent to the one currently represented by Brent Rathgeber.

“Mr. Speaker, the member for Edmonton—St. Albert did resign from caucus and the people of Edmonton–St. Albert did elect a Conservative MP,” Ms. Ambrose said of Mr. Rathgeber. “The member himself said just a month and a half ago on one of his blogs, ‘I’m elected as a Conservative member of Parliament. My constituents expect me to support the Prime Minister and the cabinet.’ ”

Mr. Rathgeber did indeed say these words in an interview some weeks ago. At the time, he also said that “I do not work for the Prime Minister’s Office. I am not a member of the prime minister’s staff. I am a member of Parliament.” And that, “I am standing up and acting the way parliamentarians have acted for 800 years. They represent their constituents and they hold government to account. Loyal to this government, but not a simple yes man. I absolutely dispute the notion that constructive criticism of the government is somehow equivalent of rogueism. Being a constructive critic of the government leads to better legislation, whereas a yes man or a sycophant will continue to cheer blindly on the advent of imminent policy derailment.”

It would perhaps be interesting to know if the government agrees with those principles too, but on the basis of the two sentences she cited, Ms. Ambrose was apparently willing to state for the record that the government believed Mr. Rathgeber was no longer entitled to a seat here.

“We do think he should do the right thing by him and by his constituents,” Ms. Ambrose said, “run in a byelection as an independent.”

It would be interesting to know when “we” came to this belief. It would seem to have occurred to the government sometime after David Emerson and Wajid Khan voluntarily crossed the floor to sit with the Conservative side in 2006 and 2007 respectively and even after all but three Conservatives voted against an NDP bill in February 2012 that would have required a by-election of anyone who wanted to sit with a party whose banner they were not carrying when elected. Indeed, Ms. Ambrose herself voted against that.

Mr. Rathgeber does not even want to go that far: he will sit as an independent and he seems to have no inclination to join another team. But now suddenly Ms. Ambrose and the government had discovered a very strict view they were previously unaware of. Perhaps when accused of lacking principle, there is a natural urge to attempt to assert one.

The Prime Minister—or at least his office—stands now accused of demanding and exerting too much control. For sure, Mr. Rathgeber’s bill was successfully gutted and, before that, Mark Warawa’s motion was sufficiently buried—though that much might only amount to circumstantial evidence in lieu of anyone willing to confess that they were doing the Prime Minister’s bidding. And, of course, Conservative MPs do often seem to have a remarkable consistency of thought and expression—though only those held in the most extreme conditions can say that they do not have freedom over their own words and deeds.

But of control, the Prime Minister can at least now point to some evidence that his is rather limited. Here, for instance, is a Conservative MP stating, on the record, that the government’s response to Mr. Rathgeber resignation has been shabby. And there, earlier this spring, were several Conservative MPs who stood and asserted their right to speak in the House regardless of whether the government whip wished to give them the opportunity. And there, just a month ago, were more than 20 members of the Conservative caucus out on the front lawn advocating for a debate the Prime Minister has said he has no interest in entertaining.

For that matter, of the great scandal of the last three weeks, the Prime Minister’s defence rests almost entirely on how little control he had over his own office—that he was completely unaware of what no less than his closest advisor was doing with one of the senators Mr. Harper appointed.

“Once again, the facts in this matter are very clear,” Mr. Harper reminded everyone again this afternoon in response to yet another question from Thomas Mulcair. “I do not pretend they are good. Mr. Wright wrote a cheque on his own personal account and gave it to Mr. Duffy so he could repay his expenses and told me about it on May 15.”

So there is that. And there is the fact that 19 years ago Thomas Mulcair was presented with an envelope by the mayor of Laval and that he then left the room and did not report what he had seen to the police.

“Mr. Speaker, the fact of the matter is this. I expected that if any member of the caucus, any senator, had expenses that were inappropriate, that that member would repay those expenses. I was also informed, as all Canadians were, that that was in fact what had transpired. We now learn, we learned much later, that is not the case. As soon as I learned that was not the case, I made that information public, the very same day,” Mr. Harper recalled at one point. “I did not wait 17 years. The leader of the opposition knew of bribe attempts by the mayor of Laval. We did not wait 17 years for an entire culture of corruption in Quebec contracting to finally tell the truth.”

It is unfortunate for the party that Mr. Harper presently leads that the constituents of Edmonton—St. Albert are apparently not terribly concerned about this particular matter. At least according to the individual those constituents elected.

“My constituents simply do not care what somebody, who they hope will never become Prime Minister, did or didn’t do seventeen years ago,” Mr. Rathgeber wrote this morning.

And so what do the people of Edmonton—St. Albert care about?

“They do care, however, about the relations between a sitting Senator and Langevin Block (PMO),” Mr. Rathgeber explained.  “For a government that was elected on a platform of accountability, my constituents are gravely disappointed.  They appreciate human frailty but when a group misses its self-proclaimed standards, a little contrition and humility not blust and blunder, is the expectation.”

It is also, of course, inconvenient, at least for a government that wishes to cast aspersions on the leader of the opposition’s accountability, that Mr. Rathgeber would seem to have departed the Conservative caucus because his desire for more transparency was not appreciated.

Relaxing at one point before Question Period, Mr. Harper leaned on his left elbow and chatted happily with Peter Van Loan, not seeming particularly concerned about anything. Perhaps there is some comfort in seeing matters as beyond one’s control. Nigel Wright is no longer in Mr. Harper’s employ. Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau are no longer in his caucus. Mr. Rathgeber will now sit on the other side of the House. Mr. Wright and Mr. Duffy will have to answer to other authorities now. And it perhaps it should seem that all this will be trivia by the time of the next election—it remaining to be seen where this government will be by then and whether the opposition parties can earn the right to have a turn. Perhaps it is all basically trivia already.

But then the Conservatives have always seemed so in control of the story. And, at least for the moment, the number and weight of events seem nearly to be exceeding their ability to shape it all into something saleable. A Bay Street millionaire cut a cheque for a former member of the media elite. And now a tall, nerdy conservative libertarian from Edmonton stands in judgement. And now maybe it is down to whether they become ironic and iconic symbols or minor footnotes in the story of Stephen Harper’s government.