Conservative MPs used like 'trained seals,' Rathgeber says

Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber said he has left the Conservative caucus in part because of the control Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office exercises over backbench MPs, which was preventing him from representing his constituents.

The former Tory MP, who announced he was quitting late Wednesday night to sit as an Independent, said staff in Harper's office — who are "half my age" — pressure the caucus to obey their talking points and vote "like trained seals."

"When you have a PMO that tightly scripts its backbenches like this one attempts to do, MPs don't represent their constituents in Ottawa, they represent the government to their constituents," he told reporters.

Rathgeber spoke bluntly about his former party and the influence the PMO has when he held a news conference in his Edmonton riding Thursday.

"I do believe that the PMO has too much power, that they don't properly respect the legislators and most importantly, there is not a proper degree of separation between the legislature and the executive," he said.

The $90,000 cheque that Harper's chief of staff Nigel Wright wrote to Senator Mike Duffy to cover his improperly claimed housing allowance is a prime example of the lack of separation, he said.

"The Prime Minister's Office seems to be accountable to nobody, not even the prime minister," said Rathgeber, who was elected in 2008.

The watering down of his private member's bill in committee on Wednesday is another example of the lack of separation, he added, saying that Conservative MPs on the committee were told what to do by Harper's staff.

Bill C-461, also known as the CBC and public service disclosure and transparency act, was amended by the committee without his support. The bill sought public disclosure of expenses and salaries of government bureaucrats and senior CBC employees or managers earning more than $188,000 a year. Amendments passed as a result of the Conservative majority on the committee raised that level to $444,661.

Rathgeber said he had tried to convince his colleagues on the committee to support his bill in its original form, but that he knew it was "a long shot." He said he believes the government failed to support him for political reasons, because it is afraid of revealing the salaries of top civil servants.

He then reluctantly came to the conclusion that the lack of support for his private member's bill was "tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally."

The Alberta MP said his discomfort in the party began about a year ago, but when the committee gutted his bill it was "the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."

"The government's lack of commitment to transparency and accountability is very, very troubling and as a result I can't unequivocally support the government anymore," he said.

Rathgeber will vote with the Conservatives on a case-by-case basis he said and do what is best for his riding.

Rathgeber said he will use his "unchained opportunity" in question period now to ask about principles he and other conservatives believe in that seem to have "been abandoned or at least compromised by this government in the name of political expediency." Those principles include free markets, balanced budgets, and open government, and he said they are the ones "sacrificed at the altar of electoral calculation."

Rathgeber said he had not spoken to Harper about his decision and that while he has great respect for Harper as a person and as a leader, he has "complete control" over his caucus. "Caucus is very deferential to the will of the prime minister," he said. "For me that's a bad thing."

He said that he's heard from a couple of dozen Conservative MPs who have expressed both support and disappointment in reaction to his departure. His constituents, so far, are mostly in support of his new status as an Independent MP, he said.

Rathgeber said he's not trying to start a revolt of any kind, but he had to quit so that he can speak freely on issues and that he thinks backbench MPs need to take a stand.

"We have to take a stand that we're not going to read these talking points that are written by PMO staffers, that we're not going to vote like trained seals based on how they tell us," he said. "Too many backbench MPs do willingly what the Prime Minister's Office wants them to do because they see that as a way of advancement in the party and within the government."

Rathgeber said it's "personally challenging" for him to be told what to do by PMO staff who are "half my age."

He said he has no intention to join another party, and as for running again in 2015 he said he'd have to evaluate circumstances when the time comes.

The Prime Minister's Office has reacted to Rathgeber's resignation from caucus by saying he should face the electors in a byelection. Rathgeber said that suggestion is "a little rich" and that he has two other words for it: "David Emerson."

Emerson was elected as a Liberal in 2006 but Harper enticed him to cross the floor immediately and the Vancouver MP showed up to be sworn into the Conservative caucus as trade minister. He ignored calls to resign and run in a byelection. He left politics in 2008.

Rathgeber said his Edmonton–St. Albert seat doesn't belong to the Conservative Party of Canada simply because he won it for them in 2011.

Meanwhile, on Parliament Hill, MPs from all parties were reacting to Rathgeber's decision.

"I think now the government is trying to attack him," NDP MP Charlie Angus said. "The issue here is why is it that the government felt so strong about crushing a bill about some basic transparency and accountability at the upper central civil service?"

Conservative MP David Tilson said he doesn't know anything about Rathgeber's bill but he did have an opinion on what his former colleague did. "I think he made a big mistake quitting the caucus," he told reporters.

Another Tory MP, Brad Trost, said on CBC Network's Power & Politics that he is sad to see Rathgeber go and that he supported his bill. He didn't agree with his former colleague's assessment of the PMO, however, or with how he handled his disagreement with his party.

"I don't think anyone who has watched my career would say I'm a trained seal," said Trost, but he said he does understand the pressure he was talking about.

Trost said Rathgeber was a "good Conservative" who worked hard for the party and that the PMO may later regret its call for Rathgeber to stand in a byelection.

Trost said he supports Harper even though he "is not perfect."

"But people don't have to be perfect to be the best person for the job and that's why we support him, because he is the best person for the job. We encourage him to work on his imperfections but we still support him," he said.