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Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber speaks about his decision to quit the federal Conservative caucus in St. Albert, Alberta on Thursday June 6, 2013. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber speaks about his decision to quit the federal Conservative caucus in St. Albert, Alberta on Thursday June 6, 2013. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper's office treats MPs like 'trained seals': ex-Tory MP Add to ...

On his first day as an Independent MP, Brent Rathgeber is once again taking aim at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), saying Stephen Harper’s staff undermine the role of elected officials.

The Alberta MP said he ultimately grew tired of the PMO’s authority, and of bowing to “masters half my age” who give backbench MPs instructions about how to vote, treating them like “trained seals.”

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Mr. Rathgeber spoke to reporters in Edmonton after leaving Ottawa early Thursday morning. He resigned the night before after his private member’s bill, aimed at disclosing top bureaucrats’ salaries, was shot down by a Conservative dominated committee.

That was “the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mr. Rathgeber said, but he’d been growing frustrated over the previous 12 months. He hung on to try and get his bill passed.

“I knew that I was pushing a rock uphill, and it didn’t happen,” he said of the bill passing the committee stage without amendments, “and that was sort of the last reason for me to stay.”

The bill was aimed at boosting transparency in government, a key conservative principle, he said. “The government’s lack of commitment to accountability and transparency is very, very troubling,” Mr. Rathgeber said.

Critics say the changes watered down the bill to the point of it being useless. Mr. Rathgeber’s version drew cross-partisan support. Asked about the changes, PMO spokesman Carl Vallée said: “The bill was studied and amended by the committee as per the normal parliamentary process.”

The government fielded questions on Mr. Rathgeber’s departure during Question Period on Thursday, with Heritage Minister James Moore rejecting Mr. Rathgeber’s critique by arguing “the Prime Minister has shown openness” since taking office.

“The principle and mandate on which we were elected, Mr. Speaker, was to build a stronger and healthier country,” Mr. Moore said.

Alberta MP Rona Ambrose, representing Edmonton-Spruce Grove, reiterated the Prime Minister’s Office’s call for Mr. Rathgeber to run in a by-election.

“The people of Edmonton St. Albert did elect a Conservative MP… we do think he should do the right thing by him and his constituents – run in a by-election as an independent,” Ms. Ambrose said.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson suggested the changes in Mr. Rathgeber’s transparency bill were unnecessary because salary ranges, as opposed to specific salaries, are already available. “Nobody has done more for transparency than this government,” Mr. Nicholson said.

On Wednesday evening, another of Mr. Harper’s spokespeople called on Mr. Rathgeber to resign and run in a byelection. Mr. Rathgeber gave no sign he’d do that, saying “that’s a little rich.” He cited the case of David Emerson, who was elected as a Liberal before crossing the floor in 2006 to join the Harper Conservatives. Mr. Emerson did not run in a byelection.

“The Conservative Party doesn’t own this seat simply because I won it for them in the last election,” Mr. Rathgeber told reporters Thursday.

The PMO expects backbenchers to blindly support the government, he said. “I don’t really fit too well in what is the PMO’s model of a model backbencher, and that is to read the talking points and stay on script,” he said, later adding that, with such PMO control, “MPs don’t represent constituents in Ottawa. They represent government to constituents.” Mr. Rathgeber said that is at odds with the intention of parliamentary tradition.

The Prime Minister now has “virtually complete control” over his caucus. “For me, it’s a bad thing,” Mr. Rathgeber said Thursday.

Mr. Rathgeber was supportive of Mr. Harper himself, but critical of his office – suggesting Mr. Harper is not directly involved in the day-to-day operations of his own shop.

Conservative whip Gordon O’Connor said in an interview Thursday that the Conservative Party gives its members more freedom on votes than the other parties in the house, rejecting the assertion that backbenchers have no freedom.

“All parties have a level of discipline and cohesion,” Mr. O’Connor said. “…I don’t accept that fact that we’re any more disciplined than any other party.”

Earlier Thursday, Mr. Rathgeber wrote a blog post that the Conservatives have lost sight of some principles in the interest of political expediency. “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,” Mr. Rathgeber wrote.

Winning re-election as an independent candidate is difficult, but not impossible, Mr. Rathgeber said. Asked if he thought leaving caucus might amount to political suicide, he replied: “You don’t make a decision like this without calculating what it means to your electability.”

The resignation has divided Conservatives. Mark Warawa, another outspoken MP, praised Mr. Rathgeber’s record. Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay said Mr. Rathgeber “showed a rigidity” in rejecting changes to his bill.

Others expressed personal support but also disappointment with the circumstances of the departure.

“I am disappointed with his decision. That being said I have always enjoyed working with him,” fellow Alberta MP Brian Storseth said.

Mr. Harper’s own former staff were also divided. Dimitri Soudas, Mr. Harper’s former top spokesman, echoed the PMO’s call for Mr. Rathgeber to run in a byelection. Meanwhile, Kory Teneycke, another former Harper spokesman, said he thinks Mr. Rathgeber “does not stand alone” in saying that he barely recognizes the Conservative Party.

With files from Gloria Galloway

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