Like most Canadians, before last week I had never heard of Alberta Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber. How downright refreshing it was to hear a member of the House of Commons talk fervently about the vital role of the legislative branch as a check on executive power.
Too bad that conviction didn't surface earlier. Much earlier.
It sure would have come in handy as colossal omnibus bills were dumped on the House of Commons and as manifold occurrences of contempt of Parliament and its officers were taking place. Or as rigorous scrutiny was needed of spending on such important items as gazebos in the name of "Canada's Economic Action Plan", record deficits posted, and an orgy of patronage appointments made.
Rathgeber's eloquence and so-called "principle" was necessary quite a while ago. Instead, he and his fellow government backbenchers have been thoroughly obedient. His sortie would have also carried a bit more weight had he not accused Stephen Harper's young staffers ("people half my age") of intimidating him—an experienced legislator and lawyer—into years of backbench compliance.
On the one hand, Rathgeber said that the "openness, transparency, and accountability" chant—the cornerstone of the Harper Conservative brand—is a sham. On the other, he professes respect and veneration for Harper, the grand architect himself, who designed and led the subversion of the House of Commons he so laments.
In his mini civics lesson, Rathgeber correctly explained that MPs are supposed to be legislators charged with scrutinizing government spending and bills, and propose amendments to legislation. In his lucid statements, Rathgeber discussed how MPs are responsible for keeping the executive branch accountable so that its already considerable powers don't render impotent the very tenets of democracy.
All true. Still, Rathgeber and his colleagues have been blind adherents, enablers, and mindless cheerleaders of the ways of the iron-fisted prime minister who did precisely the opposite, yet professes his unwavering admiration for.
For seven long years, Rathgeber and other Conservative MPs willfully, faithfully, and with apparent enthusiasm, carried out instructions and parroted numbingly preposterous talking points given to them to read.
At least he had the good sense to acknowledge that it has all been a charade. Better late than never, I suppose.
Indeed, MPs are not "trained seals"; they are paid to think. They are elected representatives of their constituents, their province, and their individual consciences. At the same time, MPs are elected and serve under a party banner, as Rathgeber did. They have a responsibility to support their party and its leadership to advance an agenda and ensure unity of action, purpose, and message. Good governance in a democratic society requires it.
That assumes, of course, that there is a coherent agenda.
At the core of the Harper government's DNA is an opposition mentality. It stems from its Reform Party roots, a grievance- and protest-based "movement" that was anchored on a few very basic principles: honesty and integrity, competent fiscal management, and accountability to Parliament.
Seven years later, has the dial been moved in the right direction on any of these?
Two years into its zealously hunted majority, and there's still no substantive policy agenda in sight.
One of the reasons why Brian Mulroney was able to keep his large and divergent caucus together for as long as he did was because of a deep sense of shared purpose. Besides an empowering and open style of leadership, the Mulroney government's agenda was big, substantive, ambitious, and demonstrably in the national interest. Caucus knew they were there for something important, even historic.
There is no such anchor in today's Conservative party under Stephen Harper's leadership. The government has made a deliberate decision to vacate the fields where national leadership is most urgently required, such as health care, education, the environment, aboriginal issues, and strengthening our economic and social union.
Harper has chosen not to work with the provincial premiers as a group to tackle many of our common challenges that can only be addressed with national leadership. Under Harper, Canada has signalled impatience with international institutions, such as the United Nations, and this has negatively impacted our voice, standing, and effectiveness internationally.
The only thing left for Conservative backbench MPs is the incessant warfare of partisan politics and the nit-picky pettiness and small-minded isolationism of a group devoid of a compass. That is what leads to a resignation over an earth-shattering question like publicizing the salaries of senior public servants.
Eclipsing Rathgerber's newfound concern over the role of MP's is the competence of the government he has just left. The culture, tone, and management of a government has been meticulously nurtured by Stephen Harper. It is that—and only that—that is fundamentally at issue. And that, for both Conservatives and Canadians, is the essential and unavoidable inconvenient truth.
Daniel Veniez is a former Liberal candidate in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. Follow him on Twitter @DanVeniez.