Brent Rathgeber says he’s pleased to see the Senate has voted to make “a mockery” of the Conservative majority’s approach to salary disclosure.
The Edmonton-St. Albert MP made headlines earlier this month when he quit the Conservative caucus in protest over changes his own colleagues made to his private members bill.
Mr. Rathgeber’s bill, C-461, proposed to allow the disclosure of the names of all public servants who are paid more than $188,000. The Conservative majority amended the bill in committee to raise the threshold to the equivalent of the highest possible payment for deputy ministers, which works out to $444,661.
Conservative Senators took note of this and on Wednesday, they amended another Conservative private members bill dealing with the disclosure of union expenses. One amendment from Conservative Senator Hugh Segal raised the bill’s threshold for disclosing the salaries of union leaders from $150,000 to $444,661.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” is how Mr. Segal put it.
It has become known as the Rathgeber amendment, and Mr. Rathgeber likes it.
“I get some satisfaction,” he told the Globe. “It draws further attention to how ridiculous it is to set a salary disclosure so high that it applies to virtually nobody.”
It is highly unusual for the Senate to block bills approved by the House of Commons. Wednesday’s vote was also the first defeat for the government – which made clear it supported Bill C-377 on union disclosure – since the Conservatives obtained a majority in the Senate in January 2010.
It is even more unusual that the Senate amendment – approved by 16 Conservative Senators as well as Liberals and independents – is essentially a sarcastic poke at the Conservative leadership.
“I think it was a deliberate attempt to make a mockery of disclosure legislation,” said Mr. Rathgeber.
The debate around both bills will continue in the fall. Mr. Rathgeber’s bill will be dealt with at report stage and third reading in the House of Commons, where there are opportunities for MPs to move amendments.
The union disclosure bill, proposed by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert, has been amended and sent back to the House of Commons. Should Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogue Parliament, that could add a few twists.
After a prorogation, private members bills return to the last stage they were at in the House of Commons. So it is possible the Senate will once again be faced with the original version of Bill C-377 in the fall.
When asked recently for an explanation as to why the Conservatives amended Mr. Rathgeber’s bill, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Tony Clement referred questions to Conservative MP Brad Butt, who moved the successful amendment.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Butt said he did not see any connection between the two bills. He said the union disclosure bill is about creating a public registry of union spending, whereas Mr. Rathgeber’s bill is about changing the rules for what can be released through Access to Information requests.
“These two bills are completely separate in my opinion,” he said.
Mr. Butt noted that neither the NDP nor the Liberals supported Mr. Rathgeber’s bill and that the changes he proposed were based on testimony heard at the Commons ethics committee.
Mr. Butt said the reason he moved to raise the threshold for disclosure was because of concern that Mr. Rathgeber’s proposed level would create unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy.
Starting at a higher level is an opportunity to test the system, he said.
“I think it’s a very good start on a new system for allowing these [access to information] requests that I think can be improved down the road once we do trial and error and see how this new system will work,” he said.