This past June, MP Brent Rathgeber resigned from the Conservative Caucus. His reasoning went to the heart of the role of the MP, an issue Samara has actively illuminated since its MP exit interviews. Rathgeber’s experience echoed that of many MPs we interviewed – not being heard, not able to introduce legislation on behalf of his constituents, feeling the PMO was too controlling. Samara's Executive Director Alison Loat joined the discussion with an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen entitled, “Rathgeber challenges party dominance of MPs.” She was also on a panel with Rathgeber on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin where she and a few others discussed whether MPs are actually serving the issues of their constituents.
Today's guest blog post from Jared Milne returns to this topic and Rathgeber's resignation. Jared is a freelance researcher, writer and analyst from Alberta. He has previously worked as a public servant, research assistant and municipal intern for various government and independent employers, and has published multiple op-ed articles and letters to the editor commenting on Canadian politics on various newspapers and websites.
Up until the 1840s, the British colonies that would become Canada were led by unelected, unaccountable governors. While there were elected legislatures, the members of these legislatures had no real power. It was only in 1848 that reformers like Robert Baldwin
, Joseph Howe
and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine
established the idea of responsible government in Canada. This made them the fathers of Canadian democracy.
Responsible government is the basic principle of our parliamentary government system. It states that the prime minister and his or her cabinet must have the support of a majority of members of Parliament in order to be able to govern. If they don’t have that support, then they lose power. A prime minister with a majority government can usually count on the support of his own party’s MPs, while a prime minister with a minority government needs the support of other parties to be able to govern. This also applies at the provincial level to premiers and their own cabinets.
It’s the responsibility of MPs to keep the prime minister and cabinet accountable. This applies even to MPs from the prime minister’s own party, who are supposed to ensure that he or she continues to respect democracy and doesn’t overstep his or her bounds. Unfortunately, over the last several decades our prime ministers have centralized more and more power in their own hands, even as their own MPs vote and act solely as they’re told by the Prime Minister’s Office. This practice didn’t start with Stephen Harper – Pierre Trudeau famously stated that MPs became “nobodies” when they left Parliament Hill. Jean Chretien was referred to as “the friendly dictator” for the way he kept his MPs in line. The Liberals have done it just as much as the Conservatives.
Through all this, the principle of responsible government has been weakened. Instead of political leaders being dependent on their MPs and MLAs to stay in office, MPs and MLAs now depend on the party leadership to be able to run in elections. They are afraid of being able to speak up for fear of having the party leaders refuse to allow them to run again in their ridings.
That’s why the resignation of Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber from the Conservative caucus is so significant. Mr. Rathgeber quit in part because he was unhappy with the way the Prime Minister’s Office tried to gut the private member’s bill he was trying to pass, which would have required the CBC to divulge how much it was paying its senior leadership. He was also fed up with the way staffers from the Prime Minister’s Office kept trying to tell him what to do and how to vote. Rathgeber noted that the federal Conservatives have been doing many of the same things for which people used to criticize the federal Liberals. It’s worth recalling that the Reform Party was formed in part to protest the muzzling of Western-Canadian MPs, which prevented these MPs from voicing their constituents’ concerns.
In resigning from the Conservative caucus for the reasons he did, Rathgeber has not only stood up for his constituents, but for the spirit of responsible government. At the end of the day, it is MPs and MLAs who have the power and the responsibility to hold prime ministers, premiers and their cabinets to account.
Baldwin, Howe and Lafontaine would all be proud.
This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on June 19, 2013 and is available online here.