Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber unleashed a political storm last night when he announced on Twitter that he is leaving the Conservative Party of Canada caucus. Initially citing a “a lack of commitment to transparency and open government,” he expanded his criticisms to the control Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s office exercises over backbench MPs as interfering with the ability to represent his representing his constituents.
“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,” Mr. Rathgeber told reporters at an afternoon press conference in Edmonton.
First elected to Parliament in 2008, Mr. Rathgeber has built a case for leaving the Tories by earning a reputation as being one of the only Conservative politicians in Ottawa to purposely deviate from the party discipline enforced by Prime Minister Harper. This is certainly embarrassing for Prime Minister Harper’s government, which has been scandal plagued for the past few months, but it is yet to be seen how damaging the departure will be for the Tory government in Ottawa.
His positions have not always been consistent with one ideology. For example, he is a Conservative who opposes the government’s anti-union legislation yet has introduced a private members bill that could undermine the independence of crown corporations like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (which was amended by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson). Perhaps he was just bored with being one of the only contrarians in the Ottawa Tory backbenches?
Starting his political career at the provincial level in 2001, Mr. Rathgeber became an unlikely politician when he stepped in as a last minute candidate after the already nominated PC candidate, Don Koziak, decided against challenging popular Liberal MLA Lance White (Mr. Rathgeber won the election). He served one term as the Progressive Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Calder until 2004, when he was defeated by New Democrat David Eggen. This means Mr. Rathgeber holds the dubious honour of being the only Alberta Conservative to have unseated an incumbent Liberal and been defeated by a New Democrat.
Rumours are already circulating that he could be eyeing a return to provincial politics, perhaps using his new-found fame to propel him as the Wildrose Party‘s challenger to Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk in Edmonton-Castle Downs.
Before he makes his decision, Mr. Rathgeber could learn a lesson from former Edmonton Tory MLA Raj Sherman. Dr. Sherman was treated as a saint when he split with the provincial Tories to sit as an Independent, he fell from grace just as quickly as had risen when he decided to join the Liberal Party.
Rathgeber’s departure could help Tories
Unexpectedly, Mr. Rathgeber’s departure from the Tory caucus may have helped save his former party from an even more devastating political storm. With electoral boundary changes being imposed in the next federal election, local Tories were not looking forward to the prospect of some incumbent MPs having to challenge each other for riding nominations.
In south Edmonton, new boundaries have forced Tory MPs Mike Lake, James Rajotte, and Blaine Calkins to uncomfortably position themselves for the prospect of nomination fights in new ridings. Making the shuffle more complicated are rumours that north Edmonton MP Tim Uppal may seek a nomination in a south Edmonton riding, as his Edmonton-Sherwood Park riding is being dissolved. Add to this the rumours that Minister Rona Ambrose may opt to retire instead of seeking a fifth-term in the new Edmonton-West riding.
If the nomination contest tension reaches the point of fisticuffs, the Tories could offer one of these MPs an easy nomination race in the now non-Conservative Edmonton-St. Albert. This is similar to when Mr. Uppal was offered an easy nomination win in Edmonton-Sherwood Park after Mr. Lake him for the Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont nomination in 2006 (Mr. Uppal was that riding’s Conservative candidate in 2000 and 2004).
Edmonton-East MP Peter Goldring said recently he would like to seek a Conservative (or even a Liberal) nomination in the next election. Mr. Goldring was welcomed back into the Conservative caucus today after he was suspended in 2011 for refusing to give a breath sample to police. Today he was found not guilty.
Mr. Goldring’s departure from the Conservative caucus a year and a half ago sparked interest among prospective Conservative nominees. Lawyer Michael Cooper, who is seeking the Conservative nomination in the new Edmonton-Griesbach riding, and PC MLA Janice Sarich, who is rumoured to be eyeing a federal candidacy, could see Mr. Rathgeber’s departure as an opening to run instead in Edmonton-St. Albert now that Mr. Goldring has been readmitted to the Tory caucus in Ottawa.