The independent MP for Edmonton-St.Albert and his bill

The unsettled matter of Brent Rathgeber

Brent Rathgeber tells Postmedia about what happened when he indicated some degree of support for an NDP motion at the justice committee.

Brent Rathgeber, the Conservative MP for Edmonton-St. Albert, had been instructed by the party to vote against Boivin’s motion. The party didn’t want the committee to study Schmidt’s complaint, and in a majority Parliament, what the governing party wants, the governing party gets. But Rathgeber went off script. “I am very sympathetic to your motion and to your desire to make sure the legislation is charter-proof,” he told Boivin. He was concerned that the committee might be interfering with a matter before the courts, though, so suggested that they think about it for a few days.

All hell broke loose. “You’ve never seen so much activity between the minister of justice’s minions, and the whip’s lackeys,” Rathgeber said Friday. “People were running in and out of the room and making phone calls. I think it was unprecedented.” Rathgeber was summoned for a meeting with Gordon O’Connor, who, as chief government whip, is in charge of enforcing discipline on the Conservative caucus. “We were told unequivocally that the government doesn’t want the study to be done,” Rathgeber said.

And Mr. Rathgeber tells CTV he will now be able to hold ministers to account in Question Period.

“I was never able to ask unscripted, unvetted questions of ministers of the Crown. Now I can. It’s my intention to use that opportunity to hold ministers to account,” he said, calling his newfound freedom “liberating.” “It’s my intent to vote on pieces of legislation how I believe my constituents would want me to vote rather than how I know the party wanted me to vote.”

Meanwhile, Terrence Corcoran mounts a decent argument for amending Mr. Rathgeber’s bill as the government did. Thing is, it’s not clear that the government has bothered to mount such an argument. During debate in the House, the two parliamentary secretaries to the minister of justice addressed the bill here and here. Robert Goguen came closest to making an argument against the salary disclosure set out in the bill.

In the public sector, job classifications are accompanied by a salary range within which someone is paid. Where they specifically fall within that range depends upon a number of factors, including time spent in the position and performance reviews.

Until now, the only information regarding salaries that could be made available to an access requester was the salary ranges of individuals enquired about. This salary range, along with other disclosable information, was enough to give a requester a good idea of how much an individual was remunerated by the government. We believe that being able to obtain salary ranges for the majority of public servants pursuant to an access to information request is appropriate.

In 2006 the coverage of the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act was expanded to a number of crown corporations. This change was brought forward with the Federal Accountability Act. Information on parent crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries is now accessible under the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act. As a result, the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act now include a number of government institutions whose employees and officials are much higher paid than the vast majority of civil servants. We support the idea put forward in Bill C-461, that the highest paid individuals in the public sphere should have their exact salaries disclosed.

However, we propose an amendment to permit the disclosure of the exact income of those individuals that exceeds the highest level of the deputy minister level. This is a more practical level to administer than pledging the threshold in the middle of the deputy minister classification as is currently in Bill C-461. It also better reflects the intention of disclosing the income of the very highest paid individuals.

This is a sensible amendment as it crystallizes the fundamental idea that if an individual, in the course of their employment, incurs an expense and is compensated for that expense by the government, then that information should no longer be treated as personal information. The more noted expenses, when they are paid back to the employee, will be known by all. It is important to be transparent because we want the government to be money wise and only spend money where it is necessary.

Conservative MP Brad Butt reportedly didn’t explain the amendments to Mr. Rathgeber’s bill when he moved them at the ethics committee last week and he wouldn’t comment when I asked him about the changes after Mr. Rathgeber’s resignation. Mr. Butt’s only explanation offered so far is that he didn’t want to create a “big bureaucracy” to deal with requests for salary information. When Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was asked about the amendments during QP last Thursday, he deferred, without explanation, to the current salary ranges.

As I seem to recall someone arguing last week—Kady O’Malley, maybe?—if the government opposed Mr. Rathgeber’s bill, it might’ve aimed to defeat the bill when it returned to the House from committee. The Prime Minister, for instance, could’ve whipped the cabinet and presented an argument—perhaps the one made by Corcoran—for why the bill should not be supported.

Instead, by Mr. Rathgeber’s reckoning, the Prime Minister’s Office had Mr. Rathgeber’s fellow backbenchers make substantial changes to the bill at committee—note that Mr. Butt told me he was not ordered to amend the bill—without much in the way of an argument.

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