Why was Brent Rathgeber’s bill amended?

’I think that’s a lack of respect for the legislative process’
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
Jason Franson/CP

Colby Cosh looks at the seven Conservative MPs who were responsible for amending Brent Rathgeber’s bill at the ethics committee yesterday and what those changes mean. Here, for the record, are the amendments that were made—the relevant changes are those that apply to clause four.

I emailed Conservative MP Brad Butt to ask if he had any comment on the amendment he sponsored or Mr. Rathgeber’s resignation and Mr. Butt wrote back to say he had no comment on either. I asked Mr. Butt if he was ordered to make the amendments by someone in his party’s leadership and he said “no.”

Mr. Rathgeber has alleged that Conservative MPs were told what to do by staff in the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO apparently defers to the “normal parliamentary process.”

In a news conference at his constituency office in Edmonton just now, Mr. Rathgeber expanded on his version of what happened to his bill.

I’ve always been concerned about a lack of separation between the legislative and executive branches of government. And we saw it yesterday, where the legislative members of the committee were basically dictated by political staffers how they were going to vote. I mean, I know that there was wide spread support for my bill, but the government for its own political reason decided that they weren’t going to support the bill and disclose salaries above $188,000, so the Conservative members on the committee, and there’s a majority, and they were dictated or told how to vote. And I think that’s inappropriate, I think that’s a lack of respect for the legislative process. The members of that committee are duly elected by their constituents to represent them and appointed by the various parties to sit on that committee and they ought to be able to hear the evidence, hear the arguments and make a decision based on what they think is best for Canada and what they think is best for their constituents. Not be told how to vote by unelected staffers in Langevin Block…

I’ve known since late January, early February, that it was the government’s intent to protect its highest paid civil servants. And, of course, that’s what I find so frustrating. The bill passes at second reading, goes to committee, there are five two-hour committee meetings scheduled to vet this bill, witnesses are called to testify. Not a single witness supports the proposition that $188,000 is too low. In fact, the taxpayers federation and the National Citizens Coalition testify that it was too high and should have been lowered to $100,00 to match Ontario’s Sunshine List, but in the absence of any evidence, the government introduces an amendment, moving the salary disclosure bar to make sure that no deputy minister is covered by it. So I find that process very, very troubling because it was pointless. I think I called it a charade in my blog today. The decision had been made well before the hearings to vet this bill had ever commenced.

Update 3:37pm. Huffington Post apparently caught up to Mr. Butt in an elevator after yesterday’s meeting of the ethics committee.

Caught in an elevator after the committee meeting, Butt told HuffPost that he moved the Conservative amendment to decrease disclosure because he didn’t want to create another “big bureaucracy” to handle a possible influx of Access to Information Requests for people’s salaries. “I think it will probably catch many of those who are senior executives in Crown corporations, and obviously it will capture deputy ministers at the highest levels,” he said. “I think we should start at that level. … Let’s see how the system works at that level, and I would hope if it is successful at that level, (if) it’s not a massive administrative burden for the people who have to process this request …, we can always relook at it down the road and adjust it downward.”

Butt said he did not see any paradox in the Conservative party’s moving these amendments. “This is disclosure,” he insisted. He didn’t explain his amendments at committee, he said, because he does not have to.

Update 5:14pm. During QP, the NDP’s Mathieu Ravignat asked the government to explain why Mr. Rathgeber’s bill had been amended. Here is that exchange.

Mathieu Ravignat. Mr. Speaker, I have a very simple question for the Prime Minister. Why did the government amend Bill C-461 to keep secret salaries below $ 480,000?

Rob Nicholson. Mr. Speaker, in fact, all salary ranges for public servants are already disclosed. That being said, we have expanded access to information to an additional 70 agencies and crown corporations, including the CBC. Nobody has done more for transparency than this government.