Rathgeber Quits Party, Decries Loss of Principle

June 6, 2013 Updated: June 6, 2013

PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—MP Brent Rathgeber’s bombshell resignation late Wednesday from the Conservative caucus continued to reverberate through Parliament Hill Thursday.

In a blog post titled “I stand alone,” Rathgeber slammed his former party for becoming that which it once loathed.

He said the government’s decision not to support his private member’s bill on CBC and Public Sector disclosure and transparency was the “proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

But the decision to quit the Tories was a long time coming and began when his relationship with the party began to sour a year ago when he published a blog criticizing what he described as “ministerial opulence. 

The blog, titled “Of Orange Juice and Limos” criticized overtime charges for ministers’ limousine drivers when a Parliament Hill bus service could shuttle them around the hill without incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay for limo drivers that were sitting and waiting for their passengers.

Rathgeber said the senate expense scandal involving Mike Duffy and former PMO Chief of Staff Nigel Wright and the government’s response have been “extremely troubling.”

“I joined the Reform/conservative movements because I thought we were somehow different, a band of Ottawa outsiders riding into town to clean the place up, promoting open government and accountability. I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked.”

In recent days, the Tories have tried to deflect NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s simple, direct questions about that scandal by calling him out for not notifying police when he was approached with a bribe in 1994 during the time he was Liberal member of the Quebec provincial legislature. Mulcair did not inform police about the suspicious envelope he was offered and refused to take, which he suspected contained cash, for 17 years.

Rathgeber criticized the government’s attempt to change the channel on the senate scandal by referencing Mulcair’s failure to report the bribe.

“My constituents simply do not care what somebody, who they hope will never become Prime Minister, did or didn’t do 17 years ago. They do care, however, about the relations between a sitting Senator and Langevin Block (PMO),” wrote Rathgeber.

“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 wasn’t enough to simply do better than the “Sponsorship Scandalized Liberals” he wrote.

Rathgeber’s attempt to pass a private member’s bill that would disclose the salaries of public servants paid over $188,000 was rendered useless by government amendments that raised that threshold to $319,000, which would exclude many government advisers.

“I have reluctantly come to the inescapable conclusion that the government’s lack of support for my transparency bill is tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally. The government chose to gut my transparency bill despite not a single witness testifying at the Access Committee in support of either eviscerating amendment.”

He called the committee hearings, for his and all bills, a “charade.” 

In his blog post and at a press conference in Edmonton Thursday, Rathgeber derided the influence of unelected PMO staffers half his age telling him what he could say both in and out of the House of Commons. In his post, he said the amendments to his bill were made at the request of the staffers. 

Rathgeber claims MPs have ceded too much power to the PMO and those staffers.

“Compliant MPs just do what they are told by PMO staffers. That the PMO operates so opaquely and routinely without supervision is an affront to the constitutional requirements of responsible government and is also the genesis of the current Duffy/Wright debacle.”

But he drew the line at denouncing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, instead directing his criticism towards PMO advisers, a stance he maintained during a press conference in Edmonton on Thursday.

“I still support and greatly respect the Prime Minister; I continue to question the decisions and actions of many of his advisors,” he wrote.

When pressed by reporters on how he could draw a distinction between the PM and his office, Rathgeber said there were 100 people in the PMO and that made it impossible for Harper to know everything that was going on. He said he completely believed Harper was unaware that Wright cut Duffy a $90,000 checque to pay back his inappropriately claimed housing expenses. Duffy used the fact that he repaid the funds to stop cooperating with an investigation of those claims. 

Rathgeber says he will now exercise his ability to speak independently on an issue-by-issue basis. He wrote and repeated to reporters that he will support the government when he agrees, and won’t when he does not. 

Now that he is freed from party restraints, he will use his “unchained opportunity in Question Period to ask the Government pointed but fair questions on principles I believe that most conservatives still believe in but seem to have been abandoned or at least compromised by this government in the name of political expediency.”

Those principles include a return to balanced budgets, limiting the size and scope of government, and transparency in government operations, he wrote.

“I appreciate the important role of compromise in politics. In fact, I compromised significantly in the drafting of my disclosure Private Member’s Bill by setting the salary disclosure benchmark significantly higher than necessary in order to minimize institutional resistance. However, even setting the benchmark significantly higher than any of the provinces that maintain ‘Sunshine Lists’ was apparently not supportable by a Cabinet intent on not disclosing how much it pays its senior advisors.

“I can only compromise so much before I begin to not recognize myself. I no longer recognize much of the party that I joined and whose principles (at least on paper), I still believe in. Accordingly, since I can no longer stand with them, I must now stand alone.”

With his resignation, the Conservatives are calling for him to give up his seat in Parliament and run in a by-election. The request is an awkward proposition for the Tories due to being the beneficiaries of floor crossings themselves and voting against an NDP private members bill that would have made byelections mandatory for MPs who crossed the floor. However, the bill, tabled by NDP MP Peter Stoffer, would have allowed an MP to sit as an independent without facing an election.

Many Tories expressed surprise and disappointment about Rathgeber’s resignation; some said they understood and respected his motives.

Several, including Daryl Kramp, said MPs need to be team players. Kramp compared party politics to playing football.

“We all have issues where we want to set the direction and the course of the play but at some point, somebody has to call the play, and then we have to move in that particular direction. Because if you don’t do that, obviously you cannot advance the ball.”

“Sometimes there is strength in diversity of opinion, there is nothing wrong with that. But at some point you cannot move in 307 different directions all at once.”

He said MPs have their opinions, but they still have to follow the principles of Parliament’s party-based system.

But he completely disagrees with Rathgeber’s criticism that the Conservative government had abandoned its principles and no longer supported transparency.

“Quite frankly, I think he is dead wrong on that,” said Kramp. 

Mark Warawa, the Tory MP who led a backbench effort to get a greater voice for individual MPs, bid Rathgeber a supportive fairwell. “Brent, you are a man of integrity and will be missed,” he tweeted.

Stephen Woodworth, who also supported that effort, said he would have supported Rathgeber’s original bill.

Woodworth echoed comments Rathgeber has made repeatedly that MPs have a role distinct from the executive branch of the government and its legislative priorities. Rathgeber told The Epoch Times in May that he thought he better served the party as a critic at times than as a yes-man.

Woodworth said the decision to step down as an MP and run as independent in a byelection was up to Rathgeber.

“I personally think he is a fine man and I think that it is good to have him in parliament, but it is a decision that he has to make.”