Inside Politics

MP Brent Rathgeber: Independent at Large

Tuesday was a particularly busy day on the Hill for newly Independent MP Brent Rathgeber, whose progressively more enthusiastic off-tossing of the yoke of party discipline suggests that his current status might now more accurately described as "Liberated".

Yesterday, courtesy of House Speaker Andrew Scheer, he got to put a question to the government on its seemingly unending Economic Action! Plan advertising campaign, which he described as "self-serving drivel."

In response, Treasury Board President Tony Clement noted that Rathgeber seemed to have "some new friends on the NDP benches."

The full exchange:

Mr. Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton--St. Albert, Ind.): Mr. Speaker, Treasury Board documents tabled last week show that the finance department has spent an additional $15.25 million shilling for the economic action plan, bringing the total to $113 million since the economic action plan's inception.

Now the government defends this largesse by explaining that the ads are necessary to inform Canadians about some program or issue, yet its own survey indicates that they have not been successful in either directing traffic to the website or to calling the advertised toll-free phone number.

In this time of fiscal restraint, when will the government stop wasting taxpayers' money on this self-serving drivel?

Hon. Tony Clement (President of the Treasury Board, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the hon. member seems to have some new friends on the NDP benches, I notice.

I would remind the hon. member that it is the responsibility, it is a duty, of the government to communicate on important programs and services and how they are available to Canadians. Obviously, advertising is a key component of how we can do that. We treat all taxpayer money with the utmost respect. We require government business to be done at the lowest possible cost.

I am surprised the hon. member did not key in on another important fact that was found in those documents as well: the budget deficit is $6.9 billion lower than projected. Well done, Minister of Finance.

Later that afternoon, he spoke in favour of a Liberal motion that, if adopted, would compel the PM to come before committee to be questioned on the details of the Duffy/Wright repayment plan -- albeit with some reluctance, he admitted, as he continues to support the PM, "although no longer unequivocally."

For Rathgeber, it comes down to responsible government, a concept for which, it's fair to say, his support appears to be about as unequivocal as it gets:

It is a very simple concept. The government, the cabinet, the executive is responsible to the democratically elected chamber, which is this place. Therefore, it is in this place that, all things working out as they should, the Prime Minister ought to, in my view, answer the questions from the opposition, from the third party and from members of his own caucus if they were so inclined to ask with respect to what the Prime Minister knew and when he knew it.

I have consistently believed the Prime Minister, and I have been very public about this. I have been asked many times and I have always indicated that I believe the Prime Minister's version of events, that he was kept in the dark regarding this highly unusual, unorthodox and possibly illegal transaction between his former chief of staff and a sitting senator. However, I am not sure that ends it. [...]

The Prime Minister ought to come forward with some candour with respect to what goes on in his office. How can this type of activity go on without him knowing about it?

I was elected as a Conservative. I am one of those who came to Ottawa on a so-called "white horse" to clean up government. I believe in the Prime Minister, but I would think that he would want the opportunity to salvage his reputation and that of his government by appearing before a committee, since the Conservatives do not seem to be inclined to do it in the House of Commons during question period.

Admittedly, question period only allows for very brief questions and even briefer answers, and seldom are they ever really answered anyway. However, a committee, where people have multiple rounds of questions and can follow up, would be an opportunity for the government to come clean and for the Prime Minister to restore the integrity of his office.

Finally, according to his blog, he was in the Senate gallery yesterday evening to bear witness as the Upper House voted to suspend, without pay, three "former stars of the Conservative caucus," a move, he suggests, that was "even more egregious" than the allegations levelled against the trio:

In an actual trial, the accused would have been able to plead their cases in front of an independent tribunal, judge, or arbiter, not a mob motivated by political expediency. All three would have been able to raise potentially valid legal and substantive defences.

For example, I once beat several parking tickets by raising the defence of Officially Induced Error. A parking bureaucrat erroneously advised me that I could park on the street outside of my residential apartment building. Relying on that advice in good faith constituted a defence to several parking violations.

It appears the Senators had some advice that they were in fact compliant with the admittedly nebulous rules regarding their expense claims. Moreover, it appears that the Government was largely complicit in this 'gross negligence' and actually encouraged and defended it up and until the time the Senators' expenses became a huge political liability, transforming the Senators' defenders into their prosecutors.

Furthermore, in an actual court or impartial hearing, it would be difficult to get a conviction based on a trumped up charge of breaking the spirit of the rules.

Later in the post, he raises the possibility that the suspension motions themselves may be illegal, as the provisions could violate the section of the Parliament of Canada Act that "statutorily guarantees a Parliamentarian's salary," and goes on speculate that the "show trial" that went on in the Red Chamber over the last few weeks was "performed exclusively to allow the PMO to assert that it took care of things."

"For the majority of the Senate to allow themselves to become puppets in the PMO's political calculation," he concludes, "does more to discredit the Chamber than the padding of the expense accounts of their now expelled brethren." 

Now, it's worth noting that yesterday's burst of parliamentary activity was likely a one-time fluke. As an independent, Rathgeber will likely consider himself lucky if he manages to snag a speaking slot every few weeks, let alone two in one day. 

Then again, during his tenure on the government backbench, his odds of grabbing the spotlight wouldn't have been much better -- and he almost certainly wouldn't have been allowed to ask a minister an unscripted question.  

It may make for lonely caucus meetings, but Independence may have its privileges too.  

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