Brent Rathgeber: The Hill’s unlikely maverick

Aaron Wherry goes backstage on the broken democracy tour
Sean Kilpatrick /CP

Standing tall and unshaven in front of a lectern that barely comes up to his waist, a man dressed all in black—black suit jacket, black sweater, black pants, black shoes—is explaining the situation. For the benefit of 15 law students in this small classroom on the campus of the University of Ottawa, he is reviewing the nature of responsible government, explaining the concepts that underpin the Westminster system of governance and expounding on the pressures and processes that undermine the institution currently. “I absolutely disagree with the notion that loyalty to the government or to the party leader requires that one blindly and without thinking support every detail that the government does or says,” Brent Rathgeber explains.

He tells the class he worries that we currently run the risk of turning the clock back 175 years to before Lord Durham reported to his superiors in Britain that the colonies of British North America be given greater say over their governance; government is too powerful, Parliament is too weak. “Even well-intentioned leaders must be subject to checks and balances,” the Independent MP for Edmonton-St. Albert explains. “Holding to account vets bad legislation and improves good legislation. Holding to account constantly challenges the government of the day to perform even better. Holding to account makes mediocre executives better, good cabinets great, and defeats bad governments.”

Near the end of the hour and a half, a student asks what they might do to advance the sort of change that Parliament needs. “Well, you should move to Alberta and campaign for me,” Rathgeber jokes. “I’m running as an Independent. I’m running against the machine.”

In the seven months since he resigned from the Conservative caucus, Rathgeber has become a convenient point of reference—for measuring both the state of our parliamentary democracy and the state of the Harper government—and also something of an evangelist. He has given some version of this talk nearly a dozen times—to university students in Edmonton, Montreal, Winnipeg and Halifax, and, in his riding, to the Rotary club, the legion and the Presbyterian church—all part of what he has dubbed his “broken democracy” tour. He has signed up with a publisher to write a book.

Where once there was a relatively anonymous backbencher, now there is an interesting case study or an intriguing challenge. Or at least a politician with a cause. And after a year that included various existential crises for Parliament and ended with the tabling of Michael Chong’s Reform Act, Brent Rathgeber raises various questions, including whether the future of Parliament might look something like him.

He stands around six foot four and walks with a bit of a limp—the lingering result of a car accident—and tends to close his eyes when he speaks. A former insurance litigator, in 2001 he became an MLA in the Alberta legislature after a surprise win in a riding that hadn’t voted Conservative since 1982. As an MLA, he fought his own side’s plans for auto insurance reform. “Brent is quite an individualist, there’s no doubt about it, but I perceive that as a strength—although sometimes it may be problematic in a system of party discipline,” says Thomas Lukaszuk, now the deputy premier, who sat beside Rathgeber in the legislature and joined him in the fight over auto insurance.

After being defeated in Alberta in 2004, Rathgeber was elected federally in 2008. He admits that he did some of the things for the Conservative team—reading scripted questions, pursuing hostile witnesses at committee—that he now criticizes. But after the 2011 election, he realized that an eventual promotion to cabinet was unlikely. And so he began to change his approach, using his blog to express his views on various matters and to advocate for a strictly conservative approach to fiscal policy, sometimes departing from the government’s position. Every so often, he says, he or his staff would hear from the Prime Minister’s Office with a quibble about something he’d written.

Then in May 2012, he expressed concern about the $16-glass of orange juice that Bev Oda had famously ordered while abroad and the use of government cars and drivers to move cabinet ministers around Parliament Hill. That post, he says, the PMO wanted taken down. He refused. A week later, when the Prime Minister told an interviewer that the next cabinet shuffle was a year away, Rathgeber tweeted, “I guess no limo for me anytime soon!! Lol.” The PMO, he says, was once again unimpressed. When he returned to Ottawa in the fall of 2012, he had been moved from the public safety committee to the comparatively obscure Library of Parliament committee and his seat in the House had been moved to a back corner.

He carried on writing, lamenting at one point about an overreliance on talking points and party discipline and, at another point, admonishing those of his fellow Conservative backbenchers who declined to hold government to account. And he proceeded with his own bill, C-461, which would allow for greater disclosure of public sector salaries. When seven Conservatives on the committee studying his bill voted to raise the threshold for disclosure from Rathgeber’s $188,000 to approximately $440,000, Rathgeber quit the Conservative caucus, blaming the government for the changes to his bill and accusing it of failing to uphold the principles of accountability and transparency.

When he returned to the House a week later, his seat was in the far left corner, in a cluster with Elizabeth May, the remains of the Bloc Québécois and the rest of the parliamentary misfits. One of his first votes as an Independent was to support NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s bill to expand the power of the parliamentary budget officer. In the last six months of 2013, he voted in favour of the government’s budget and against an NDP motion opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, but in favour of a Liberal motion that would have seen the Prime Minister testify under oath about the Duffy-Wright affair and against government motions to impose time allocation and closure to limit debate on legislation. “I don’t instinctively vote against the government, like the Opposition tends to do, but I’m not a trained seal that I vote with government because I’m part of that caucus,” he says. In his speech to those law students, he said MPs are reduced to “automatons” and “voting machines.”

Some might justifiably quibble with Rathgeber’s denunciations. As much as he did not think it fair to be described as a “maverick,” it would be unfair to think of all those who remain in party caucuses as drones. And as off-putting as the tribalism of question period can be, and as silly as the repetition of talking points often is, party discipline has its place.

But in a recent TV appearance to discuss the Reform Act, Rathgeber appeared alongside Andrew Percy, a Conservative MP in Britain. At last count, Percy had voted against his own party 7.8 per cent of the time. There is not an MP in Ottawa who would come anywhere near that rate of rebellion (a 2012 study by the Globe and Mail found that the most rebellious MP over an 18-month stretch, Conservative James Bezan, had dissented from the majority vote of his party a mere 1.42 per cent of the time).

There are relatively more MPs in Britain and so rebelling is easier, but there might be a case for something like this level of dissent. “We have to get to a point whereby someone who agrees with their own party 90 per cent of the time, but has 10 per cent disagreement, is not seen as a rebel, they’re seen just as a thoughtful individual who fits within his party 90 per cent of the time, and 10 per cent just may have a different view or their constituency may have a different view,” says Conservative MP James Rajotte, who seconded Chong’s Reform Act.

Asked to describe his ideal Parliament, Rathgeber appeals to the basic principle. “Responsible government,” he says. “You have a government that is clearly responsible to the House, where the House takes its job seriously in holding the government to account and the backbench members of the government caucus don’t consider themselves to be cheerleaders.”

It is a simple idea. But one that might require more complication.