For Brent Rathgeber, the time had come to leave. His long, slow drift from the Conservative Party was finalized when his own bill, pushing for salary disclosure, was overhauled.
It was Wednesday night, and things unfolded quickly. He called into his riding association’s monthly board meeting and told those who were there he was quitting. Mr. Rathgeber then e-mailed the Speaker, then the caucus Whip and the Prime Minister’s Office. Finally, he told the public, via Twitter. All within minutes.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail from his home Monday, the MP for Edmonton-St. Albert reflected on the past few days, the reaction from his Conservative colleagues and his next plan of attack. He has seized the spotlight as the poster child for backbench discontent, triggered a fight with the powerful PMO and alienated many of his board members. In the days since, the self-described loner has heard from only a handful of his former colleagues. But Mr. Rathgeber wouldn’t have changed anything.
“I don’t have any regrets. I had been thinking about this for some time. And I felt an immediate sense of relief when I hit the send button,” Mr. Rathgeber said, later adding: “I also will say this – I knew there would be interest in my story. I have been overwhelmed by how much interest.”
A former lawyer and MLA, Mr. Rathgeber had, for about a year, emerged as an occasional critic of his own government on his blog. He slammed Bev Oda’s spending and the cost of ministers’ limousines. He asked why Canada bothers funding Via Rail and whether the passing of Margaret Thatcher and Ralph Klein meant the “death of principled conservatism.” He was among those to push for backbenchers’ rights to speak without approval of the PMO or the caucus Whip. Then came Wednesday, when his private member’s bill pushing for public-service salary disclosure was watered down by his own party. Thus, another blog entry: “I stand alone.”
His is a battle for the traditional rights of the MP, which he believes have been eroded. “I maintain that the role of a government backbencher is not to blindly cheerlead for the government and be part of the communication branch of the PMO,” Mr. Rathgeber says. And Canadians appear to agree. A poll released Monday, commissioned by a charity called Your Canada, Your Constitution, showed 71 per cent of respondents supported rollbacks on the power of party leaders over MPs.
The top-ranking Edmonton MP, Rona Ambrose, called on him to step down and run in a by-election after the PMO did the same. Another Alberta MP, Deepak Obhrai, objected to Mr. Rathgeber calling backbenchers “trained seals.”
Some current MPs cautiously backed him. “I like Rathgeber’s bill and I wish he had stayed in caucus. We need more fiscal conservatives, not less,” said Rob Anders, a fellow outspoken backbencher. James Rajotte, an Edmonton MP, also said he had no problem with the original bill. A few fellow MPs have called, and some others have e-mailed, but not in numbers “you might think,” Mr. Rathgeber said. That doesn’t surprise him.
“I was not a really popular guy in that caucus. You can print that if you want. First of all, socially, I’m a bit of a loner. I don’t go to a lot of events. I don’t play on the caucus hockey team, because I have no discernible talent. And, outside of work, I don’t spend a lot of time with really anyone in my caucus. I mean, but I get along with them quite well, but we get along on sort of a professional level, not a social level,” he said.
Now he’s on the outs. On Tuesday, he’ll return to Ottawa for the first time to sit as an independent. And he’s targeting the government once again. Should he be granted time in Question Period before the summer break, Mr. Rathgeber plans to defend the temporary foreign worker program, which has become a lightning rod of controversy. After it was revealed Royal Bank of Canada was laying off staff who would ultimately be replaced by TFWs, the federal government announced changes to the program.
Mr. Rathgeber worries – as some business groups do – the TFW overhaul could put a choke on the West’s economy. “It’s a very, very big topic in Alberta. We have chronic labour shortages at all ends of the employment spectrum,” he said.
He may not get a chance to ask about it until fall. Days after his departure, though, he hopes it “will cause them to re-examine how they treat their backbenches and hopefully something good will come of that,” he said. “But I don’t expect the current backbench to line up and applaud [me].”