At 2:11pm, Brent Rathgeber, the independent MP for Edmonton-St.Albert, took his spot along misfits row in the far left corner of the room. He turned to his left and shook hands with Lise St-Denis, the New Democrat who decided she wanted to be a Liberal, and Louis Plamondon, the dean of the House and one of the four Bloc Quebecois MPs who managed to get re-elected in 2011. Beyond the Bloc bloc sits Claude Patry, a New Democrat who decided he wanted to be a sovereignist, Bruce Hyer, the New Democrat who decided he would rather sit as an independent, and Elizabeth May, the Green MP who is presently a party of one, but who vows that should she ever have a caucus to lead that it will be committed to the principles of Westminster. To Mr. Rathergeber’s right sit the New Democrats. His new seatmate is Marc-Andre Morin, a 62-year-old rookie MP who unexpectedly swamped a Bloc incumbent in 2011.
Officially, Mr. Rathgeber’s seat is #301. Unofficially, it is possibly significant of something about the way we govern ourselves.
Mr. Rathgeber did not have much else to do for the rest of the hour, though he did smile when Justin Trudeau accused the government side of “bluster and blunder,” a direct quote of something Mr. Rathgeber wrote last week.
Not until after 3pm did he stand and commit his first official act as an independent MP, rising to indicate to the clerks that he would be voting nay on C-480, an NDP MP’s bill that would’ve amended the Old Age Security Act to accomodate funeral arrangements. All Conservative MPs similarly voted against.
Not until 3:21pm did Mr. Rathgeber officially demonstrate his independence, standing then to indicate his support for Bill C-476, an Act to amend the Parliament of Canada Act, sponsored by NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and intended to further empower the parliamentary budget officer. Not one of the MPs who remains in the Conservative caucus stood to do likewise and the bill was defeated by a count of 148 to 131. It is apparently the government’s position that there is nothing about the position of the parliamentary budget officer that needs changing. It is apparently Mr. Rathgeber’s position that something might be done to improve the current situation. And now he can indicate as much without repercussion.
For the record, he later voted in favour of a government bill, the Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act.
There is probably some irony in Mr. Rathgeber’s decision to leave a party currently led by a man who was first elected as a Reform MP in 1993.
Stephen Harper ran then for a party that endorsed free votes in the House, bowing to the will of one’s constituents, amending the Elections Act to ensure a party’s candidates and MPs were not beholden to the party leader, implementing referendums and recalls. His first speech in the House, delivered on January 19, 1994, raised concerns about public finances, deficits and the utility of government spending to stimulate the economy. Eight days later, he asked Jean Chretien if the prime minister might relax the confidence convention to allow for more free votes. On February 8, he mocked the practice of government ministers being lobbed friendly questions during Question Period. On March 23, he questioned the constitutionality of a government bill (the sort of concern that earned Mr. Rathgeber a stern talking to in February). On March 25, he objected to the use of omnibus legislation. On April 29, he chided a government MP who had apparently conceded a problem with a government bill, but defeated a Reform amendment anyway.
“This is a perfect example of why Canadians are so cynical of the representation they receive in the Chamber,” Mr. Harper told the House, “and why democratic reform such as free votes are essential to restore the confidence of Canadians in their elected officials.”
Twenty years ago, Mr. Harper and Mr. Rathgeber might have had a lot in common. Or at least the makings of very interesting discussion.
(As recently as 2006, the Conservative party promised that, if it were able to form government, it would “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.” It would also establish an “independent Parliamentary Budget Authority” and “require government departments and agencies to provide accurate, timely information to the Parliamentary Budget Authority to ensure it has the information it needs to provide accurate analyses to Parliament.” That the parliamentary budget officer was established is commendable. That the parliamentary budget officer’s right to information is now a matter of dispute is unfortunate.)
It is Mr. Rathgeber’s opinion now that the Conservative party has strayed too far from its principles. Maybe it has. Maybe that is entirely understandable. The Stephen Harper of 1993 might not have accepted the sort of response Stephen Harper of 2013 has provided for the matter of Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy, but maybe that is merely the nature of opposition and governing—and maybe it is a failure of the system that a better response can’t be compelled. It is always easier said than done and it is always easier to have principles when you do not have to live with the consequences of putting those principles into practice. Compromise is necessary. Promises can’t always be kept. No government can go too long without shifting its positions. The longer a government is in power, the more it will have to adjust to survive. And so on and so forth. Maybe this is how all governments eventually run out of room and end up defeated and in need of the space that being out of office provides.
Of course, some of Mr. Rathgeber’s concerns—or, rather, the concerns raised by his case—are foundational. They are not merely about public policy, but about the system we have designed to implement public policy. In this regard, we are talking about real change. And maybe that is only ever possible in moments of crisis or upheaval—when either a great scandal has the public demanding a response or a new government has come to power (or, in the case of 2006, both). Maybe the Backbench Spring will amount to something like real change. Or maybe we will have to wait for the next new government championing change.
We have somehow muddled along this far, progress coming in fits and starts, slowly, but surely. Maybe it’s always, in the longer trend, getting better. Maybe the system still basically works. Maybe Mr. Rathgeber is a footnote. Maybe everyone will fret for awhile longer and then a new government will arrive and make some improvements and then, awhile later, we’ll fret again about how we’re governing ourselves and the cycle will repeat itself. Maybe that cycle has been repeating itself for hundreds of years.
On the other hand, maybe our politics is in crisis. Maybe it actually is getting worse. Maybe we at least have to consider the possibility that we’re in real trouble now.
A decade ago, Mr. Rathgeber was an MLA in Alberta who publicly clashed with the governing party to which he belonged. Maybe things were somehow different in Alberta then. Or maybe, in serving only three years, he was defeated before he could wear out his welcome or come to the decision to leave his caucus. Maybe he’s not a right fit for this kind of stuff. Maybe he’s just another misfit. Maybe this is merely the natural tension of the system in action.
Setting aside all the other maybes, it is interesting to wonder not so much whether Mr. Rathgeber should still be sitting with the Conservatives, but whether anyone of his comportment could remain in the caucus of a governing party. We could spend the next two years and more brooding over all the larger questions, but perhaps we might start with the practicalities of this stuff: Could any party—one led by Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau or some new Conservative leader or some new version of Stephen Harper—govern with a Brent Rathgeber in its midst? Would it? And, if so, how?