The resignation of an Alberta MP from the Conservative caucus has left Prime Minister Stephen Harper facing another firestorm, raising new questions about transparency on spending in Ottawa and the role of his staff in steering government.
MP Brent Rathgeber took aim at the Prime Minister's Office after quitting the Conservative caucus late Wednesday evening. "I barely recognize ourselves," he said, because the party has traded its Reform Party-era principles for "political expediency."
Meanwhile, unelected PMO staff treat MPs like "trained seals," he said, and expect them to silently rubber-stamp laws.
The resignation came after Conservatives watered down Mr. Rathgeber's private member's bill, one aimed at disclosing bureaucrats' salaries. Now, nearly all those specific salary amounts will remain hidden at a time when the Prime Minister is facing daily questions about the transparency of his government.
The timing of the overhaul of Mr. Rathgeber's bill is particularly difficult for Mr. Harper, who is already distancing himself from the questionable expenses of senators he appointed while facing political pressure from the opposition to reveal how all MPs and senators spend taxpayers' money.
All told, it led to Mr. Rathgeber questioning what his former party had become – and quitting. He was applauded by some who share his concern.
"There's a lot of truth, I think, in what he's saying. And I think there's a lot of MPs that are just holding their noses to what's going on, and haven't spoken up," said Cliff Breitkreuz, a former Reform MP from Alberta.
"The government has certainly strayed from Reform principles," former Reform MP David Chatters added.
Others say Mr. Rathgeber should have stuck with his party. "I think when you're a member of a team, you have a responsibility to the team," said Ian McClelland, a former Reform MP who also served in the Alberta legislature with Mr. Rathgeber. "… I like Brent, but I think he was wrong."
A PMO spokesman said the salary disclosure bill was "studied and amended by the committee as per the normal parliamentary process." The PMO and Alberta MP Rona Ambrose called on Mr. Rathgeber to resign his seat altogether and trigger a by-election.
Instead, Mr. Rathgeber plans to sit as an independent and push for transparency, smaller government and a balanced budget – principles that "have all been sacrificed to the altar of electoral calculation," he said. The PMO "has too much power" and is eroding the role of MPs.
"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.
A lawyer and former MLA, Mr. Rathgeber was elected federally in 2008 in the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert. He has served on several committees but not in cabinet. About a year ago, he began criticizing the government, particularly on spending. His frustration mounted but he stuck around for his private member's bill. "That was sort of the last reason for me to stay," he said. He stressed that he still supports Mr. Harper as leader.
The bill, C-461, had two aims. One targeted the CBC by exposing it to more access to information requests. That was ultimately dialled back after complaints.
The bill's other goal was to make the specific salaries of any bureaucrat earning more than $188,000 publicly available. Currently, only general salary ranges are public.
But his bill was overhauled Wednesday at a committee meeting by seven Conservative MPs, six of them from Ontario and four of them serving their first term. Only one, Chris Warkentin, was from Mr. Rathgeber's home province of Alberta. They went on to push through amendments so that specific salaries won't be released unless they're more than the maximum amount a senior deputy minister can earn. With bonuses, that's about $444,000.
By definition, it excluded nearly every public servant and effectively "eviscerated" the bill, Mr. Rathgeber said.
Mr. Warkentin played down the significance of the change, saying salary ranges remain public. "This goes a long way towards ensuring transparency at the CBC, and it's a great bill," he said.
The Conservative caucus won't change in size: Peter Goldring, who had been sitting as an independent, was welcomed back Thursday after being cleared of a charge of not providing a breath sample.