Garry Breitkreuz is a veteran of the House of Commons, one of the few MPs left from the 1993 Reform Party wave and a man who largely led the push to abolish the gun registry. On Thursday, the Saskatchewan Member of Parliament stood out on another issue: he was the lone Conservative MP to attend a book launch of former caucus colleague Brent Rathgeber.
The Independent MP's book, Irresponsible Government, takes aim at the state of Canada's democracy and ineffective MPs who cheerlead Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet rather than holding it to account. It's an indictment of decades of consolidation of power in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) from an MP, Mr. Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus last year and has since emerged as a critic of some of Mr. Harper's tactics.
Mr. Breitkreuz was the only one of 161 Conservative MPs to come to hear Mr. Rathgeber read an excerpt of the book Thursday morning in Ottawa, steps from Parliament Hill.
"I think Brent is going to add a lot to the discussion that needs to take place," Mr. Breitkreuz, 68, said, later adding: "He's got a lot of courage, he's a good example to the rest of us."
Mr. Breitkreuz sees many of the same problems in the state of Canada's Parliament as Mr. Rathgeber – an ineffective Question Period, tight party control, an opposition focused on scoring political points – but said change will be difficult to achieve.
"I came here in 1993 with what are actually the same goals he espoused here today. [I'm] somewhat frustrated we can't bring more democracy to our Parliament," Mr. Breitkreuz, who is not seeking re-election next year, said.
He supports Mr. Rathgeber but said any change in Parliament's procedures or strict party discipline has to be unanimous among all parties.
"One party cannot do it. They will be decimated at the polls," he said, later adding: "I am not sure how you get a simultaneous change across the board. I do not know how you can do that. Maybe with [Michael] Chong's bill, it can be incremental, but again it's not going to be a great change. So it's a concern of mine. I think we'd reinvigorate the country if we were able to bring in more democracy."
Mr. Chong, another Conservative MP, has proposed a bill called The Reform Act that would rein in the authority of party leaders and empower individual MPs. It received early support from Conservative backbenchers, including from Mr. Breitkreuz. Mr. Chong has, however, twice clawed back the bill's proposals in a bid to get it passed. It now appears set to pass.
In his speech at Thursday's book launch, Mr. Rathgeber, who is seeking re-election as an independent, said he was very disappointed in the changes to the Chong bill, saying it has been gutted like his own bill – which would have forced the disclosure of salaries of senior public servants – last year. Mr. Rathgeber quit caucus after saying the PMO eviscerated his bill.
Mr. Breitkreuz acknowledged MPs face pressure to vote a certain way, though declined to specify cases he'd experienced ("At this point, I'm not really prepared to get into it," he said). However, he believes the media cycle forces parties to have strict discipline.
If an MP wants to change a policy within his or her party, "you almost have to do it behind the scenes. Because if you do it openly, the media will immediately seize upon it as divisions within the party. The media drive a lot of the problem," Mr. Breitkreuz said. He believes Mr. Harper is open to listening to MPs, even backbenchers, and has changed his mind after discussions with his caucus.
"The PMO at this point – because of media and the opposition, I think – is caught within a system that, even if it wanted to change, it would have a hard time changing without being decimated and never again forming government," he said.
Meanwhile, he said parties that don't have discipline aren't likely to get re-elected, such as the Reform Party he was once elected for, a predecessor of the current Conservative Party.
"As a Reformer we were much more independent, but we would never have formed government if that would have continued. The system is such that if you don't form a strong political party, you're not going anywhere," Mr. Breitkreuz said.
The book launch, hosted by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom, was also attended by roughly half a dozen NDP MPs, two Green Party MPs and an Independent MP. Mr. Chong's bill is due for a second-reading vote next week.