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Harper's caucus control described in book by MP, a former Tory

Former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber’s book raises questions about backbench independence.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Upset with the Conservative government's handling of the F-35 jet purchase, Brent Rathgeber wrote a blog entry critiquing it. It was an innocuous act, save for one detail: He was a Conservative MP himself.

Soon after, the phone rang, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office on the line demanding the blog post be taken down. Mr. Rathgeber's aide refused. "You don't understand; I am calling from the PMO," the staffer replied.

The standoff is one recalled in Mr. Rathgeber's book Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, set for release this month. Mr. Rathgeber, twice elected as a Conservative before quitting caucus last year, outlines how MPs have seen their powers fade away, reduced to "cheer-leading and barking on command" while the PMO has grown stronger over decades, under Mr. Harper and his predecessors, with little oversight.

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"The purpose and raison d'être is to contribute to, and to some extent lead, a discussion among people who are interested in these topics," Mr. Rathgeber said in an interview. "Maybe we're comfortable with an executive [branch of government] that's accountable to nobody. I'm not."

The book offers a glimpse into the tightly controlled Conservative caucus, where backbenchers are given little say and punished – a relocated office, a less desirable committee, the cancelling of travel junkets – for stepping out of line. Mr. Rathgeber was formerly an Alberta MLA under Premier Ralph Klein, whose caucus voted on bills before they were tabled, he writes. Under Mr. Harper, the Conservative caucus is more of a pep rally and doesn't include votes. Instead, there are "caucus advisory committees" open to Conservative MPs – but their meeting schedules aren't published, Mr. Rathgeber writes.

MPs play along so that they have a chance to rise to cabinet, Mr. Rathgeber says. He did, too, but that changed after his 2011 re-election. "I was never making it to the show. I came to grips with that, then I decided well, then, my role is to do what a backbench member of Parliament is supposed to do, and that's hold the government to account," he said in an interview.

The 248-page book, published by Toronto-based Dundurn, outlines how Tory MPs are tightly controlled by Mr. Harper's office – given suggested talking points, expected to lob softball questions at ministers and essentially considered spokespeople for government. It's all a far cry from the intended role of the House of Commons, conceived as a body that would hold government to account, Mr. Rathgeber writes.

He questions the decline of ministerial responsibility, at one point saying cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Tony Clement should have resigned over their handling of the F-35 and G-8/G-20 summits, respectively. He touches, too, on the responsibility of Mr. Harper for his own staff, pointing to the agreement between Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy, of which Mr. Harper has disavowed knowledge. "Leaders lead, they do not perpetually search for scapegoats," Mr. Rathgeber writes.

He offers a glimpse into the Supreme Court selection process, saying the 2011 selection committee he was on would meet beforehand with PMO staff to discuss the issue and they would steer things. It's reminiscent of the process that led Mr. Harper to the more recent botched nomination of Marc Nadon.

The book raises questions of backbench independence that have simmered over the past year and comes as one Conservative MP, Michael Chong, pushes through a bill that would rein in the power of party leaders. Mr. Rathgeber supports the bill but, in the book, predicts it won't pass.

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The book makes specific recommendations for improving the function of the House of Commons, including disallowing backbench softballs; breaking up omnibus bills; bringing in MP recall rights, allowing voters to turf a representative between elections; and giving the Speaker, not government, say over when to limit debate on a bill.

The final straw for Mr. Rathgeber was the gutting of his own private member's bill last spring – one that would have required government to disclose the salaries of senior bureaucrats. In the book, he said the PMO saw too many "landmines" in the notion, and eventually derailed the bill. Mr. Rathgeber quit caucus that day.

He expects the book to have few fans within government. Opposition MPs may like it, he said. "But if and when they become the government they will summarily dismiss all those concepts," he said in an interview, saying there's no silver-bullet for reversing the long, steady decline of Canada's democratic institutions. "This is about the long game. This is about contributing to the debate to try to fix things."

Editor's note: An earlier headline on this story misidentified Brent Rathgeber as an ex-MP. He's still an MP, but an ex-Tory and now sits as an independent.

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