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Shuffle further frays Harper’s ties with backbench, says former Tory who quit party

Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber is shown in St. Albert, Alta., on June 10, 2013.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper's cabinet shuffle will only further strain ties with disgruntled backbenchers, former Conservative Brent Rathgeber says.

The Independent Alberta MP had held out hope that his high-profile departure from caucus last month might somehow influence the changes in the government's front bench. In particular, he said a new House Leader would help mend ties between the cabinet and the rest of the Conservative MPs.

Instead, House Leader Peter Van Loan kept his job – and that won't lift the spirits of the Conservative caucus, Mr. Rathgeber said.

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"Quite frankly, I found that very surprising," Mr. Rathgeber told The Globe and Mail in an interview Monday, later adding: "I'm not sure how you measure a benchmark, of degrees of animosity, but [Mr. Van Loan] is not popular … I thought maybe I had that position [as the least popular caucus member] at one time, but I guess there was an opening after I left," he said.

He said the effect of Mr. Van Loan's renewed role was compounded by the promotion of Pierre Poilievre – among the most partisan MPs in the party – to minister of state for democratic reform.

"When it comes to some of these hot-button issues like Senate reform and the Senate scandal, again [it signals] a very, very aggressive attack-type response to criticism or questions," Mr. Rathgeber said. "So, there were some who were hoping, and some who even predicted, that this cabinet change would signal a new relationship between the front and back benches, and I really don't see anything there to substantiate that theory."

The changes suggest to Mr. Rathgeber there will be no meaningful overhaul of voting or committee procedure to make Parliament work more effectively. "I see more of the same. In fact, if anything, the command-and-control structure will probably get tighter," he said.

In a statement released Monday, Mr. Poilievre focused on Senate reform as a priority in his new role. "I believe in the Prime Minister's democratic reform agenda and will work to make it happen," he said.

None of the eight new ministers' appointments surprised Mr. Rathgeber – seven, he noted, had served as parliamentary secretaries, while the eighth, Kevin Sorenson, had been a committee chair. Many have a track record of "going on the five o'clock cable news shows and defending the government's position," he said. No true backbencher was elevated to a cabinet role.

It signals "a real tightening up as we go into the last half of this mandate, and an election a little more than two years away," Mr. Rathgeber said. "I think the threat to the government is a Liberal Leader who is young and social-media savvy and telegenic, so you've seen in many ways a cosmetic facelift to the cabinet, where you've brought in a bunch of young, bright, photogenic people. So I don't see that as so much a substantive change in the government or the government's direction, as it is very much bringing in younger, fresher faces – a cosmetic change to make the government more appealing to younger and female voters."

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He'd hoped for a conciliatory figure, such as Alberta MP James Rajotte, to be moved into the role of whip (a role given to B.C. MP John Duncan) or House Leader. Mr. Rajotte would be "much more backbencher-friendly," Mr. Rathgeber said, and has frequently been mentioned as a cabinet contender, but was left out again on Monday. Asked for comment, Mr. Rajotte took the high road, congratulating his cabinet colleagues. "I will remain steadfast in representing the concerns of the region in the House of Commons and to our government," he said.

All told, the shuffle leaves Mr. Rathgeber comfortable in his new role as an Independent MP. If he was left with any doubts, Monday's cabinet shuffle eliminated them.

"I was sort of eagerly awaiting this cabinet shuffle, to see maybe if there was a wholesale change. And maybe all of my complaints and observations would have been addressed and corrected," he said. "And none of them were, so I certainly don't feel like I made a mistake."

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