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Uppal takes a spin at enabling Harper's reform agenda

Conservative Member of Parliament and Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Tim Uppal on Parliament Hill in Ottawa November 3, 2011.

Blair Gable/Photo by Blair Gable

Tim Uppal spent five years spinning discs – mostly hip-hop Punjabi mix music – as the host of a show on a multilingual radio station in his hometown of Edmonton. He says his program had some pretty good numbers.

But the numbers were even better for him in 2008 when, after a series of unsuccessful bids to win federal office – 2000, 2004, 2006 – Mr. Uppal finally beat out his opponents to make it to Ottawa as the newly minted member of Parliament for the riding of Edmonton-Sherwood Park.

Three years later, the former DJ who went on to become a businessman and community activist, running programs for youth at risk, won out over other veteran MPs to become a member of Stephen Harper's cabinet.

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As Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Mr. Uppal, 36, is one of the most active members of the cabinet and is attempting to make government more democratic through several controversial bills: One is aimed at reforming the Senate; another makes the Commons more representative.

This week, he introduced a bill to take big money out of politics by prohibiting loans to candidates and parties from corporations and unions.

Yet to political opponents, it's ironic that as he promotes a more democratic system, his government, with its majority, is limiting democracy through its repeated use of closure and time allocation to stifle debate in the Commons.

"At the end of day, unfortunately, their 39 per cent of the vote gives them 100 per cent of the power," says David Christopherson, the NDP's democratic reform critic. "When the government is shutting down the debate and so many things are being pushed in camera at the committee level, this is not growing our democracy or strengthening our transparency at all."

Mr. Christopherson, however, acknowledges that so far Mr. Uppal is easy to work with. He's forthright, accommodating and courteous, his critic says.

And Mr. Uppal is nothing if not distinctive in the Commons, which is struggling to reflect Canada's changing demographics. In a body full of white, middle-aged males, Mr. Uppal is that young man (he sports a remarkably bushy beard) wearing the vibrant Tory blue turban often seen sitting behind Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Mr. Uppal represents a changing Alberta, one that has certainly become more multicultural.

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"Alberta is very culturally diverse," he says. "I think Alberta itself doesn't get the credit it deserves for the diversity that it really has."

Mr. Uppal is a first-born son and a first-generation Canadian. His parents are from rural Punjab, not particularly well-educated or from families with wealth.

His father first came to British Columbia in the 1960s; his mother followed later. They moved to Alberta when he was in Grade 1. His father worked in coal mines, sawmills and retired as a driver for a bus service transporting the disabled. And his mother, whom he describes as entrepreneurial, owned a number of businesses, including an ice cream store.

But they were not politically involved. "When my parents came to this country they were so busy with working and just trying to keep things going that they didn't have an opportunity to give back," Mr. Uppal says.

But he now has that opportunity, he says, and is trying to make the most of it.

In his conversation with a reporter this week, Mr. Uppal is cautious. He answers questions about his family – his wife is a lawyer with the Justice Department and they have two young children. They live in Ottawa and he returns to his riding on the weekends.

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When speaking about his portfolio and what he wants to do, he sticks to Tory talking points.

This week's legislation closes a loophole, he says, that allowed corporations and big unions to have "possible undue influence on politicians and the political process." It bans them from lending money to candidates and political parties.

Banks and credit unions will be allowed to lend money – but the terms must be publicly disclosed.

Mr. Uppal's legislation builds on the government's Accountability Act, which was the Harper Conservatives' first effort at bringing transparency to government. This bill is aimed at levelling the playing field when it comes to money in politics, forcing sitting or potential politicians to go to individual donors and make the case "that you are worthy of the job," Mr. Uppal says.

The NDP, meanwhile, agrees with the spirit of the reforms, although it may have some concerns with some of the details.

"But we are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work on this one," Mr. Christopherson says.

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