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Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber stands during question period in the House of Commons in 2011. Rathgeber`s public-sector salary disclosure bill was watered down by fellow Conservatives in committee Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber stands during question period in the House of Commons in 2011. Rathgeber`s public-sector salary disclosure bill was watered down by fellow Conservatives in committee Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta MP quits Conservative caucus over transparency bill Add to ...

Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber has resigned from the caucus of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, after his private member’s bill pushing for transparency on public sector salaries was watered down in a committee meeting.

Mr. Rathgeber, representing the riding of Edmonton – St. Albert, made the announcement Wednesday evening. He will sit as an independent “because of the government’s lack of commitment to transparency and open government,” Mr. Rathgeber wrote online.

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Late Wednesday, he sent a statement to The Globe.

“I am getting on a plane at 7 am [Thursday] morning and flying to Edmonton. I will make myself available to local media. I want to speak to local media because it is important to me that my constituents and supporters understand this decision,” he said.

Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, confirmed the move and called on Mr. Rathgeber to step down and seek office as an independent.

“The people of Edmonton-St. Albert elected a Conservative Member of Parliament. Mr. Rathgeber should resign and run in a by-election,” he said.

Conservative Mark Warawa, who is among the party’s outspoken anti-abortion MPs, praised Mr. Rathgeber. “Brent, you are a man of integrity and will be missed,” he wrote on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, the federal Conservatives overhauled a transparency bill Mr. Rathgeber had tabled. After that, asked by The Globe about his future, Mr. Rathgeber replied: “We’ll talk about that later.”

He had proposed that the specific salary of any bureaucrat earning more than roughly $188,000 be disclosed upon request. Many provinces already disclose public sector salaries automatically at lower levels, and Canada’s Privacy Commissioner said Wednesday that doing so does “not represent serious privacy implications.”

But the committee’s changes, against Mr. Rathgeber’s wishes, now mean that a bureaucrat’s specific salary can be disclosed only if it is above the maximum amount paid to a deputy minister – the top-ranking departmental position. That’s about $444,000, and essentially rules out the vast majority of the civil service.

The seven Conservative committee members voted through the changes after declining to speak in favour of them, or argue their point. Mr. Rathgeber, who is not a committee member and did not vote, watched on from nearby after declining an invitation to sit with his colleagues.

“I’m obviously very, very disappointed both with the government position and certainly with the [committee’s Conservative] colleagues, many of whom philosophically support this legislation unequivocally, but seemed powerless to resist the instructions that were given to them by the [Prime Minister’s Office], by the whip or wherever the final instructions came from,” Mr. Rathgeber told The Globe and Mail after the meeting. “…I think we fought the good fight, but we’re simply dealing with a government that is not interested in transparency.”.

In light of the ongoing questions about Senate spending, transparency is a priority, he said, even if it means unflattering stories about overpaid bureaucrats. “I think the more long-term problem is damage to the [Conservative] brand,” Mr. Rathgeber said.

Mr. Rathgeber was a “bright fellow” who will be missed, but he was “rigid” with his bill, said Kerry-Lynne Findlay, a Conservative from British Columbia.

“Well, I think there was a variety of opinions on this bill, and the general thrust of it was supported. But he, in my opinion, also showed a rigidity in his approach to it,” Ms. Findlay said while leaving the House of Commons after Wednesday night’s proceedings wrapped up. “Sometimes you get a pride of authorship where you don’t want to see any changes. I guess it led to his decision.”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who hails from the same province as Mr. Rathgeber, said, “I wish him well. I have no beef against him.”

Mr. Rathgeber is an outspoken MP who occasionally blogs critiques of his government policy. His private member’s bill, though, pushed for changes the Conservatives were not keen to make.

Mr. Rathgeber served three years as an MLA, from 2001 to 2004, for the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. He was elected federally in 2008. Last year, he was among the MPs backing the Wildrose Party provincially, placing him among the old Reform wing of the federal Conservatives.

Dubbed the CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, Mr. Rathgeber’s bill had three aims. The first was salary and expense disclosure. Setting the salary disclosure bar at that level amounts to “diluting if not completely gutting this part of the bill,” NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice told Wednesday’s committee.

Mr. Rathgeber’s bill’s second initiative proposed that bureaucrats’ expenses – regardless of their salary – be made available. That portion is unchanged. Before resigning, he called that a “small victory.”

Finally, the bill also calls for more disclosure by the CBC, which argued its journalistic independence was severely threatened by the proposal. In response, the Conservatives passed an amendment saying the CBC need not “reveal the identity of any confidential journalistic source.” The NDP warned that protection falls short of what was promised, and may dissuade whistleblowers from trusting the CBC.

Conservative MP Chris Warkentin, who spoke on the party’s behalf for most of the meeting, said in an interview the bill boosts disclosure at the CBC. Meanwhile, the generalized salary ranges – not a precise salary or bonus – are still available, he said.

. “The [salary] information is available through access to information as it exists today. This goes a long way towards ensuring transparency at the CBC, and it’s a great bill,” Mr. Warkentin, a fellow Alberta MP, said in an interview, later adding the bill is “something our constituents have been looking for – more transparency at the CBC. It goes a long distance toward doing that. It was exactly what was asked for and was exactly what he did.”

But critics said the changes were onerous. NDP MP Charlie Angus sided with Mr. Rathgeber, saying the bill was gutted in a spirit at odds with the Conservative party’s roots. “What happened to the party of Preston Manning? Where is the accountability here?” Mr. Angus asked, referring to the former Reform Party leader. He later said the Conservatives’ rewriting of the bill is akin to “putting the horse’s head in the bed of one of its own members.”

Liberal MP Scott Andrews, who is his party’s lone committee representative, said the bill was changed because the Conservatives “don’t want to get at anybody’s salary that is close to them.”

The bill was referred back to the House of Commons for third reading.

The Conservatives who pushed through the changes included only three actual committee members: Brad Butt, John Carmichael and Patricia Davidson. Mr. Warkentin, Ted Opitz, Dave MacKenzie and Costas Menegakis substituted for Dean Del Mastro, Colin Mayes, Blaine Calkins and Earl Dreeshen, who did not attend.

Mr. Dreeshen and Mr. Calkins are both from Mr. Rathgeber’s home province of Alberta. The pair did not respond to requests asking why they did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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