Rathgeber Learning to Go It Alone

June 19, 2013 Updated: June 20, 2013

PARLIAMENT HILL—Former Tory MP Brent Rathgeber has enjoyed overwhelming support since his controversial decision to quit the Conservative caucus and stand as an independent MP, but with his independence comes a larger workload, he said.

He has no doubts about how the people he represents, and many others, feel about his decision. 

“Statistically I would say it is 90-95 percent positive. People that are angry are very, very angry are hyper partisans, including some members of my former [riding association] board. You expect that. If you are a true blue Conservative partisan, when a member leaves the caucus that is a pretty big blow. But they are few and far between,” he said.

His office has received thousands of emails and a few hand-written letters. He’s also enjoyed glowing commentaries by influential columnists and even a supportive editorial in the Toronto Sun. Perhaps most telling is what people tell him when he’s out in his Edmonton-St. Albert riding.

“When I walk down the street, it is overwhelmingly positive. People either respect the stand that I took for the reasons that I took it, or they have become disenchanted with the Harper Conservative government, and as a result they respect my position.”

He’s still a small ‘c’ conservative, he said, making it somewhat awkward when he’s in the House of Commons getting standing ovations from the NDP.

“It’s a little strange,” he said, but noted he was being supported for taking a stand rather than the policy position his question was based on.

On Tuesday, Rathgeber asked the government why it overreacted to the Royal Bank’s misuse of temporary foreign workers and overhauled the system rather than simply enforcing rules against outsourcing. Rathergeber’s Alberta riding is one where rock-bottom unemployment, 4.4 percent, makes dependence on temporary foreign workers an unavoidable reality. 

He noted that both the NDP and organized labour are suspicious of the TFW program.

Boning Up On Parliamentary Procedure

But with independence, comes responsibility and Rathgeber said he will have to spend time this summer learning about parliamentary procedure and gearing up for the responsibilities that come with speaking for himself rather than his party.

“When I was a member of a caucus, and I say this with some embarrassment, you are basically handed a voting instruction sheet, so you don’t really have to think about these things. So there is a lot more assessment, a lot more analysis now.”

There are also procedural rules he has to learn, so he can participate in debates and make his time as an independent effective. Luckily, he has some help from one of the most effective MPs on the Hill, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who took the Parliamentarian of the Year award at an annual event put on by Maclean’s magazine and L’Actualité, it’s French-language sibling.

“Elizabeth May’s been very helpful, her office has been very helpful. Their office is in the same building as ours, Confederation. Our staff have met a couple times. We are all getting up to speed and I thank them for their help in that regard.”

While he has left the party, he suspects the impact of his departure is still making a difference, raising questions about the relationship between the executive level of government, largely the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet, and the legislative side which includes MPs sitting in the House of Commons. 

He is hoping that both Canadians and MPs will consider what could be possible if Parliament worked better. 

And although he expects that a summer cabinet shuffle could temporarily soften the tone of debate, any improvement will be fleeting.

“Changing the seats in the first and second row probably won’t be any kind of long-term solution.”

Mudslinging over the Senate expense scandal, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s high fees for charity speaking engagements, and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s recent run-in with RCMP on Parliament Hill are hurting Canadians, he said.

“The important work of Parliament—passing laws for the betterment of Canada—is being neglected and I hope after a couple months of rest and relaxation, we’ll come back and focus on the [Canadian] people and less on each other.”