Rathgeber enjoys his independence
MP believes he’s a better representative outside caucus
It’s much more enjoyable now. I can speak freely, I can blog freely without the inevitable phone call from some 24-yearold in the PMO. — Brent Rathgeber
On the phone, Brent Rathgeber sounds positively chipper. He’s just tabled his latest private member’s bill in Parliament, the third of four he will introduce this session, this one limiting the size of the cabinet to 26 members. Does he think it will pass?
“Oh no,” he says cheerily. “There’s zero chance that it even gets debated, much less voted on.” But, as with his previous PMBs — one mandating balanced budgets, the other providing for firmer oversight of Canada’s intelligence agencies (the fourth would allow voters to recall their MPs, in certain circumstances) — it’s a chance to “start a dialogue about some of these democratic deficits we have.”
It has been nearly two years since Rathgeber left the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent, distraught after the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the evisceration of his bill mandating disclosure of senior public servants’ salaries. Today, he has never seemed happier. In fact, I put it to him that he is having the time of his life.
“Well, not quite. It’s still frustrating, much of the time. You’re still forced to endure hours of inane debate, or that clown show we call question period. But comparatively, yeah.” He means compared to what life was like when he was still a member of caucus, and subject to its “restrictions and disciplines and real or perceived threats.”
“It’s much more enjoyable now. I can speak freely, I can blog freely” — his writings on Brent’s Blog (brentrathgeber.ca/category/brents-blog/) used to regularly land him in hot water — “without the inevitable phone call from some 24-year-old in the PMO.”
“So yes, it’s been a liberating experience. I can promote causes that are important to me and my constituents, where I could not before.” For example, as a Conservative MP he was forbidden to speak out against changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program — popular in his native Alberta even if controversial elsewhere — “because of the political sensitivities around it.”
All in all, “I believe I am providing better representation for my constituents now.” And not only them. Though no longer a Conservative, he has emerged as the lost fiscal and democratic conscience of the Conservative party, the only MP attacking them from the principled right — in question period, on his blog, and in his recent book, Irresponsible Government (with a foreword by an up-and-coming young national affairs columnist). Other MPs, he says, have privately told him how much they envy his freedom.
Is there a downside? What has he lost by giving up his Conservative membership card? “Nothing of importance.” He’s a bit of a “social pariah,” but he was never really involved in “the Ottawa scene” to begin with. He is ineligible for perks like foreign junkets, but “those don’t mean a lot to me either.”
The worst thing, the one that gave him most pause when he was considering leaving, is that he doesn’t get to sit on any parliamentary committees. During the minority Parliament years, he says, they often did good work, scrutinizing and improving government bills. But since the Conservatives won their majority these, too, have slid into irrelevance.
Nor has he given up any influence for no longer being a member of caucus. In the age of social media, he has more ability to get his message out, as an independent MP, than he might have in the past. “My constituents don’t watch CPAC, but they do follow me on Twitter.”
Certainly he does not miss the regular weekly caucus meetings. “It’s a completely scripted agenda. It’s more of a pep rally than anything. There are no votes, no motions. It’s just a briefing.” Working within that system availed him nothing. His salaries disclosure bill was “voted for by every member of caucus.” But when the PMO withdrew its approval, “caucus support disintegrated instantly.”
Would he ever rejoin the Conservative party? “Not under its current leadership. And not under its current attitudinal leadership.” He has “some respect” for the prime minister, and for his management of the economy. But not for the “institutional carnage” — the attacks on Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, it’s a long list — they have wrought.
Well, fine. Enjoy it while you can. But without a party banner to run under, he’s doomed come the October election, right? Not necessarily. True, independent candidates face certain “legislated handicaps.” For example, unlike political parties, he can’t issue tax receipts on donations until after the writ drops in September, which means he can’t really raise funds until then.
And there’s the political handicap. Most people tend to vote on the basis of the party and the leader. The local candidate is typically only a small part of the story. Still, he has reason for some confidence. The town of St. Albert, which makes up the bulk of his riding of Edmonton-St. Albert, is a “bit of a unique situation” — an affluent bedroom community, it is made up largely of highly educated professionals, who tend to be more independent-minded, less guided by partisanship.
Indeed, he is “a little overwhelmed” by the number of people who come up to him at public events to say they appreciate the stands he has been taking. The local papers have been supportive. The union movement might throw their weight behind him, as part of an Anybody But Conservative campaign. There’s even talk that one or another of the other main parties might not field a candidate.
All in, he rates his chances at 50-50. That’s probably overstating things by a wide mark: he is a politician, after all. But if he succeeds, the message will be sent to other MPs, who might be eyeing the same leap: Come on in, the water’s warm. There’s life after caucus.