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July 24, 2013

The lessons from a resignation

Reuel S. Amdur

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Brent Rathgeber's resignation from the Tory caucus raises several issues. What does it mean for Harper's firm control over everything? What are the implications of what Rathgeber said about the Prime Minister's Office and the Duffy affair? And is control by party leaders in general too tight on caucus?

Stephen Harper has maintained a tight control not only of his caucus but of everything else he can get his hands on.  There was the proroguing of Parliament, for example.  While the proroguing did not appear to create any cracks in caucus loyalty, his treatment of internal dissent is not so inconsequential.  Let’s look at a couple recent situations.

MP Stephen Woodworth introduced a private member’s motion to strike a parliamentary committee to examine when life begins.  Of course, the motion to set up such a committee is rather silly, as the question is biological, philosophical, and religious, and Parliament is hardly the place to resolve that question. 

In reality, it was a back-door effort to bring back the abortion debate.  According to Chris Roussakis, writing in the Toronto Sun, “Conservative MP’s are under intense pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to vote against a Tory MP’s non-binding motion that calls on Parliament to study when human life begins.”  Some Tory MP’s, including Cabinet members, did support Woodworth—especially Catholics.  Most did not. 

Then there was MP Mark Warawa’s effort to put a motion opposing abortions for purpose of sex selection.  The motion went to a committee of three MP’s, which rejected giving the motion time in the House.  His appeal of this rejection was again defeated in the House.  According to Frank Becholtz, writing in the Langley Times, “Numerous media reports used it to highlight the tight control Prime Minister Stephen Harper has over his caucus and the Conservative government’s intention not to allow anything related to abortion to be dealt with in the House of Commons.”  This in spite of the fact that Harper is personally anti-abortion, but he recognizes that the issue is one he cannot win and that it can only hurt  Tory electoral chances.

Reactions from some Conservative MP’s show the unease with this level of control.  Brad Trost and Stephen Woodward both expressed concern about the tone of the official reaction to Rathgeber’s quitting and both indicated that they would have supported his private member’s bill the gutting of which Rathgeber described as the straw that broke the camel’s back.  (His bill would have meant the public disclosure of all government salaries of more than $188,000, including those of government agencies such as the CBC.)

Then there are remarks of the old Reformers.  Former MP Cliff Breitkreuz said, “I kind of applaud Rathgeber. . . I guess you can only hold the bag tight for so long, and then something almost has to happen.”  His Reform colleague David Chatters commented on the MP’s being “simply backbench voting machines for the Prime Minister’s cabinet.”  “That,” he said, “never was what we wanted or would have envisioned for government.”

Even before the Rathgeber defection there was some rumbling.  Michael Chong and Pierre Lemieux supported Warama’s right to speak in the House, as did John Williamson, Kyle Seeback, and Leon Benoit.  According to Stephen Chase, writing in the Globe and Mail, “Chong said a change 30 years ago that put parties in charge of making lists of who would ask questions during Question Period has turned into a leash that leaders can use to control who asks questions and what they say.” 

Echoing Chatter’s words, Rathgeber said, “I can only compromise so much before I begin to not recognize myself.  I no longer recognize much of the party that I joined and whose principles (at least on paper) I still believe in.”  Surprisingly, Kory Teneyke, Harper’s former mouthpiece, agrees.  “Sadly I think Brent does not stand alone on this sentiment.”

Let us now turn to Rathgeber’s observation on the Duffy affair.  “When we start justifying and rationalizing that kind of behavior, I fear we are morphing into what we once mocked.”  There is unease in the ranks about Duffy.  If the $90,000 gift was made to Duffy without Harper’s knowledge, that would reinforce Rathgeber’s view that the PMO is a force unto itself.  If not, then his belief that the czar is really pure of heart and does not know what his wicked underlings are doing is a scenario that is out.

The next issue is that of leaders’ control of their caucuses.  Chong raised the matter of who gets to ask what question in the House.  Party leaders are in that position, but the issue is broader.  While Harper has been particularly controlling not only of caucus but of public servants, including scientists, the other parties also muzzle dissent.  Were there any Liberal MP’s speaking out when Chrétien unceremoniously shut down the inquiry into the Somalia situation?  And Jack Layton landed on Libby Davies like a ton of bricks when she observed—correctly—that theft of Palestinian land began in 1948. 

By contrast with this muzzling in the House, consider the latitude of freedom in the Senate.  Hugh Segal, a Tory senator, would have some difficulty surviving in the caucus in the House.  The Canadian situation is also something quite different from the British, where MP’s at times ask sharp, pointed questions of their own party’s cabinet members, speak quite freely, and at times vote against government bills put forward by their party. 

A legislature entirely made up of independents, without parties, would be rudderless, but surely there is room for more lively debate and more differences within parties to be openly expressed.

None of this is in support of many of the policies that Rathgeber favors.

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