OTTAWA — Tired and a little beat up is the way Brent Rathgeber, the member of Parliament from Edmonton-St. Albert, described feeling Wednesday before he announced on Twitter later that night that he had quit the Conservative caucus on principle.
“I joined the Reform/conservative movements because I thought we were somehow different, a band of Ottawa outsiders riding into town to clean the place up, promoting open government and accountability,” he wrote in a blog post Thursday. “I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked.”
Earlier Wednesday, Rathgeber had watched seven Conservative MPs – Dave MacKenzie, Ted Opitz, Costas Menegakis, Brad Butt, John Carmichael, Patricia Davidson and Chris Warkentin – gut his private member’s bill, C-461.
His proposed legislation would have amended Canada’s Access to Information and Privacy laws to provide salary disclosure for employees of government institutions who earn as much as the minimum salary for a deputy minister, currently about $188,000.
Instead, a Conservative amendment put forward by Butt, the MP for Mississauga-Streetsville, suggested raising that number to the highest possible total income a deputy minister could make, about $444,000. The two NDP and one Liberal opposition members were vehemently opposed, saying the government’s amendment would make the bill useless.
“What happened to the party of Preston Manning? What happened to accountability,” NDP critic Charlie Angus asked aloud.
“Everyone is on my side but my side,” Rathgeber said, watching from the sidelines as his disclosure and transparency bill was eviscerated.
The amendment was the straw that broke the camel’s back, he said. In his view, he had already made a compromise with his party’s leadership by raising the salary disclosure to $188,000; he had originally thought $160,000, the base salary of an MP would be a good number.
With no government MP willing to speak on the amendment or even to explain why the number should be increased so much, and without any witness testimony in support, Rathgeber felt his efforts had been for nothing.
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“The whole thing was just really a farce,” he told The Huffington Post Canada. Several months ago, Rathgeber said he had been informed that his bill would be amended, but he was given no indication that the bar for disclosure would be set so high. The Commons standing committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics held six meetings and heard from eight witnesses, but “it didn’t matter what any of them said.”
“The decision had been made months ago by staffers between the Justice ministry and PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), and it didn’t matter what evidence was presented or how persuasive the arguments were. CPC (Conservative Party of Canada) members had their voting instructions and without even speaking to support their amendments, they voted in lockstep, and you see the result,” he said, frustration ringing in his voice.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised,” Rathgeber responded when asked if he were disappointed in his colleagues and in his party. “I know how the system works. Members of Parliament do the PMO’s bidding. They are told how to vote, and you saw how that worked,” he said.
Four out of seven permanent members, Conservative MPs Blaine Calkins, Dean Del Mastro, Earl Dreeshen and Colin Mayes, were absent. The Conservative government’s whip sent other MPs to replace them. “Most of the members of the committee aren’t even members of the committee,” Rathgeber said.
Caught in an elevator after the committee meeting, Butt told HuffPost that he moved the Conservative amendment to decrease disclosure because he didn’t want to create another “big bureaucracy” to handle a possible influx of Access to Information requests for people’s salaries.
“I think it will probably catch many of those who are senior executives in Crown corporations, and obviously it will capture deputy ministers at the highest levels,” he said. “I think we should start at that level. ... Let’s see how the system works at that level, and I would hope if it is successful at that level, (if) it’s not a massive administrative burden for the people who have to process this request …, we can always relook at it down the road and adjust it downward.”
Butt said he did not see any paradox in the Conservative party moving these amendments. “This is disclosure,” he insisted. He didn’t explain his amendments at committee, he said, because he does not have to.
Watching the chatter on Twitter and surveying his inbox, Rathgeber said he was already being flooded Wednesday evening from constituents and members of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation “who are all Conservatives who are ripping up their cards.”
A man who identifies himself as Ted Campbell tweeted at both Rathgeber and HuffPost on Thursday saying: “I donate the maximum allowed to the CPC every year. The CPC leadership is wrong on this issue; you're right.”
Rathgeber’s decision to quit was difficult, he said. He still likes Stephen Harper and speaks admiringly about him, but he is upset by the way the Prime Minister’s Office treats MPs. He doesn’t like the orders twenty-something staffers deliver to MPs; the expectation that Conservative backbenchers are trained seals who vote as the government tells them does not sit well either, he said.
For more than a year, since he wrote a blog post on his website decrying former CIDA minister Bev Oda’s decision to file an expense claim for a $16 glass of orange juice while staying at the Savoy, Rathgeber said he has felt increasingly uncomfortable in caucus. The Prime Minister’s recent decision to deny fellow Conservative MP Mark Warawa speaking time to discuss anti-abortion issues also bothered him.
Legislators should be left to legislate and the PMO should butt out, he told HuffPost. It’s one of the reasons he, like many Canadians, is disturbed by allegations that Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright gave a sitting senator $90,000. The Prime Minister should answer the opposition’s questions about this directly, Rathgeber said. Instead, Harper and his cabinet ministers are deflecting, choosing to attack NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair over his decision not to report a possible bribe to police more than a decade ago.
“My constituents simply do not care what somebody, who they hope will never become Prime Minister, did or didn’t do seventeen years ago. They do care, however, about the relations between a sitting Senator and Langevin Block (PMO). For a government that was elected on a platform of accountability, my constituents are gravely disappointed,” Rathgeber said on his blog.
“To say that we are somehow better than the other guys is similarly woefully inadequate. If we are measuring our ethical performance against the Sponsorship Scandalized Liberals, perhaps we need to set our ethical bar a little higher,” he wrote.
Rathgeber said he “reluctantly” came to the inescapable conclusion that the Conservative government’s lack of support for his transparency bill was “tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally.”
So why did the Tories gut his bill?
Rathgeber believes the government foolishly traded its accountability and transparency brand to protect the people who work directly for ministers and the staff below them.
“I know there was institutional resistance, because I had many, many meetings with senior civil servants in the preparation of this drafting, and I knew there was going to be resistance, but ultimately, by raising the bar above what a deputy minister can’t make, they’ve by definition made sure that any deputy minister is not included. So they are protecting the salaries of the people that they have the closest working relationships with,” he told HuffPost.
“It is (as) politically short-sighted as it is bad policy.”
The government does not want to be put in a position where they have to defend what they pay some of their top advisors, especially all the bonuses they give out, Rathgeber said.
“Before I got into this, six or eight months ago, I didn’t know that these performance variances existed, and when I saw they were as high as 39 per cent for the highest level of deputy minister – I mean that is a lot of money. That’s $124,000. That’s more than double the average Canadian salary, and that compensation is flying completely under the radar, and the government for its own reason wants to keep it that way,” he said.
“I know that they were worried about some bad news story about mandarin X or deputy minister Y who makes an exorbitant amount of money in a department that is not doing very well, but as with all decisions that you’ve seen come out of PMO lately, even the political acumen is completely short-sighted,” he said.
“The damage to the brand by being seen as being against transparency and openness – especially in light of everything else that is going on in the Senate, in light of the pledge that Mr. (Justin) Trudeau made today (Wednesday) – to be seen to be against transparency, openness and disclosure, I think causes more harm to the brand than the stories that would have come out had this bill ... passed unamended and had the salaries actually been disclosed,” he said.
Of course, the deeper damage to the Conservative Party’s brand may be done by having one of its MPs resign over a lack of transparency and openness and disclosure.