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Mark Warawa's stand against muzzling of backbench MPs has left Prime Minister Stephen Harper with something of a mini-revolt on his hands. Mr. Harper has a reputation of being controlling, but long-outspoken Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber – who has regularly blogged critiques of his own government over the past two years – says it's not just the Prime Minister. And, the Edmonton-St. Albert MP says, outspoken backbenchers are traditionalists, not the radicals.
What do you make of this?
I like to refer to it as the efficacy issue regarding Parliament versus government, versus the executive. It's been a slow evolution. People who've been around Ottawa for a long time chronicle how it started in the '70s, and accelerated under Mulroney then Chrétien, with power first being concentrated in cabinet, and then eventually from the cabinet into the Prime Minister's Office [PMO]. At some point it reaches a turning point or a precipice where, eventually, it's gone too far... I think 'backbencher revolt' is way too strong a characterization. But certainly 'restlessness' would be a better [word], and it's been building up for some time.
Do you think it will continue when Parliament resumes sitting on Monday?
I do. I understand the speaker is going to entertain a few more [questions]… I think everybody understands the importance of party discipline and party messaging, but there's got to be some reasonable accommodation with respect to the government's ability to get its legislative agenda passed, which I understand, but specifically with private members' business, private members' motions, and private members' statements. I think there's currently too much control and too much vetting.
Won't you face backlash from either your party or the PMO for saying that?
Well, I don't think so. I certainly haven't received anything yet. And this is not new. For at least the last year, I've been a bit of a non-traditional member of our caucus, in that I have, from time to time, constructively criticized our own government's policies, whether it was limousine overtime or supply management… I take the view that we're not the rogues, we're not the radicals. We're the ones that are defending the historical and traditional role of the Member of Parliament.
You're saying, if I understand, this began before Mr. Harper's time as Prime Minister.
To me, this is not a partisan issue. I know the NDP are fond of saying this is an internal problem in the Conservative caucus. It's not. All of the caucuses have too tight of control over their members, especially with respect to private members business. And if we're going to get partisan, I would say the NDP are actually the worst offender.
Do Canadians undervalue the role of an MP?
I think we do and we don't.… I've been asked that question about [my] cabinet prospects, and it's not something that ever really enters my thought process. I ran for Parliament, and I think Parliament is an important institution with an important role to play in holding the government to account. If I wanted to be in government, I would apply for a civil service job or I would apply for a political staffer job... That being said, I don't know that that's particularly well understood, and the media has some responsibility here. It often looks at backbenchers, who have been backbenchers for a long time, and they call them 'career backbenchers' and that is some sort of slight. So the inference is that if you're not moving forward, if you don't become a cabinet minister or a front-bencher, you're not successful in your career. And I disagree with that.
Given Mr. Harper's reputation, I'm surprised you don't expect outspoken Conservatives to face backlash.
Let me answer that in two ways. Number one, I think the issue of the Prime Minister himself being ultra-controlling, I think that has really grown into an urban myth… that being said, the Prime Minister's Office is, of course, a large institution in and of itself. And some of the people within that very, very powerful edifice on the Langevin Block [home of the PMO] just across from Centre Block are really the ones that, on a day-to-day basis, are trying to control the messaging, trying to get Members of Parliament to sing from the same song-sheet. And they're the ones that get the most concerned when people go off in a different direction, or tend to ignore talking points, or speak on behalf of themselves or on behalf of their constituents. So, I think you have to separate, to a large extent, the Prime Minister from the Prime Minister's Office. That's not to say running offside the wishes of the Prime Minister's Office doesn't have consequences. It can, but so far it hasn't.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Wingrove, The Globe's Alberta legislative reporter in Edmonton, will join our parliamentary bureau in Ottawa next month.