“Being a backbench MP in a majority government caucus is, without a doubt, the worst job in Canadian politics,” writes MP Brent Rathgeber. Irresponsible Government documents the misery.
MPs vote on bills they haven’t read, and deliver speeches they didn’t write. They are paid not to think, Rathgeber concludes; even behind closed doors the Conservative caucus is forbidden from casting free votes on any bill or motion: “The people’s elected representatives have failed miserably.”
Rathgeber’s writing is clear and compelling; he damns the 41st Parliament with a methodical narrative you’d expect of a former trial attorney. Committee hearings are a “sham”; speeches are “canned”; MPs are “automatons”; votes on crucial legislation are mere rituals: “Too many times I have heard a disengaged member inquire of his or her neighbour, ‘Which vote are we on? We’re voting ‘yeah’, right?’”
The author is no greenhorn; Rathgeber served in the Alberta legislature, a one-party state with its own brand of brawling politics, and two terms in the Commons. Yet confronted with the mindless partisanship of Parliament, Rathgeber decided – enough. His account of political life is unsettling.
Irresponsible Government begs the question, why do MPs put up with it? The answer is pathetic and merely human: compliant MPs are no worse than reporters who grovel for cabinet interviews, or Department of Justice lawyers who write unconstitutional bills, or RCMP officers who act as bouncers at Conservative Party rallies: the path of expediency is easy and never troublesome, even if it runs along the ditches.
Rathgeber credits a crude system of favours and punishments. Pliable MPs win plum committee assignments, perhaps a junket to Singapore, and a cushy office to impress out-of-town visitors. Dissenters are berated by apparatchiks, stripped of perks and reminded daily of who’s boss. “I was not a team player,” he notes.
Irresponsible Government settles no scores; Rathgeber does not name the worst culprits in Hill shenanigans, though he could. He merely presents the case to the jury of electors: this is what you voted for.
Rathgeber resigned from caucus in 2013 when Conservative friends gutted his private bill on salary disclosure. This was no radical measure; Ontario pioneered its so-called Sunshine List in 1996 with a Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act that required publication of names and benefits of all public officials paid more than $100,000 a year. To date Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have enacted similar measures.
In committee a small drama played out as Conservative staff directed MPs to cut up Rathgeber’s bill; one member, Brad Butt of Mississauga-Streetsville, Ont., did the chore by introducing an amendment he hadn’t written: “I want to be able to read it just so people back home think I really work here,” he quipped. Butt questioned the bill; he had to say something. it was embarrassing:
- •BUTT: “I’m trying to wrap my head around what the real public benefit value is of average citizens filing these Access To Information requests all the time, to find out what someone’s salary is at a medium level within the public service. What is the ultimate overall benefit of that?…Did you do any financial analysis of what the costs might be to administer a program like this?”
- •RATHGEBER: “No, because I don’t know how many there will be…”
- •BUTT: “Do we know how many individuals there are at the $160,000-a year or higher?…”
- •RATHGEBER: “We can’t know, Mr. Butt, because currently the government will only disclose ranges of salaries.”
Disclosure was quashed; Rathgeber quit. And the MP from Streetsville? Butt last February 24 admitted to the Commons he’d lied about witnessing a felony in the last election, but was defended by Conservative officials as a good fellow. “Commendable,” the Prime Minister called him.
In one memorable speech MP Tom Lukiwski, parliamentary secretary to the Government House Leader, explained you couldn’t censure Mr. Butt as a liar since Canadians can’t believe a word MPs say anyway: “All members tend to torque their language a bit, perhaps to embellish or to exaggerate”; “Is it distasteful from time to time? It certainly is. Is it personal? Many times it is. Do the members on our side do the same? Yes, we do.”
By Tom Korski
Irresponsible Government: The Decline Of Parliamentary Democracy In Canada, by Brent Rathgeber, MP; Dundurn Press; 168 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-28370; $19.99