The consensus building around the exit of Brent Rathgeber from the Conservative caucus this past week has settled somewhere between heroism and martyrdom. He has been applauded by the opposition and the pundit classes alike for his stalwart defense of parliament and the right of to the individual Member to be free from the shackles of party dominance. Rathgeber, in short, placed principle above party, parliament over politics. As Andrew Coyne of the National Post put it:
This is what people of principle do, when they find themselves in a position their conscience cannot abide: They resign. This is what normal politics looks like.
In opposition circles, Rathgeber is applauded as much for what it means for ordinary backbenchers as for the statement it makes about the Harper government. Some have been gleefully counting the number of backbench revolts it will take to shift the current ministry from 'majority' to 'minority'. The Conservatives, for their part, have taken the predictable response, calling for their former colleague to step aside and run in a by-election.
Rathgeber cites the "the government’s lack of commitment to transparency" as if motivation for quitting caucus. We can certainly take him at his word. There is little evidence to doubt his claims. More to the point, as a backbencher, we know much less about this MP than other prominent Tory figures. The question, is however, why now?
This new-found clarion call for accountability is somewhat out of place. It's akin to a deathbed conversion, an eleventh hour appeal to virtue. Rathgeber was first elected to Parliament in 2008. It was evident even then that this was a government light on actual accountability in favour of rhetoric. Rathgeber was part of a caucus that bolster a government that twice prorogued the House to avoid accountability. He has voted with a government that has refused to provide documents requested by the House - as per its parliamentary privilege. A government that has systemically undermined accountability from CSIS to environmental oversight, reducing budgets across the board for Officers of Parliament and has centralized power to an extraordinary degree in the PMO.
In short, the panoply of evidence pointing to the lack of accountability was fully on display before and during Rathgeber's tenure in caucus. More to the point, he has been an enabler until this point. What is most striking, however, is that his exit has little to do with actual executive transparency but the alteration of his Private Members Bill by his colleagues. The bill sought the disclosure of public sector employees - bureaucrats, a favourite target of Reform - who made more than $188,000 a year.
It is telling that the final straw was based on the hollowing out of Rathgeber's own bill and not about the general atmosphere which eschews accountability within the government. It smacks of resentment over a betrayal, not of saintly behavior. Ironically, outside caucus Rathgeber will likely be less able to promote accountability than he would within. Party discipline is what MPs make of it. If they are pliant and afraid of the Whip they are ineffective, yet an empowered caucus, one that stands up for Member's rights as parliamentarians can have a profound impact. A backbencher may have little impact on policy, but he can have an impact on governance, persuading colleagues and pushing behind the scenes for change.
Rathgeber's departure has a chilling effect, perpetuating a myth that only the opposition can hold a government to account, that there is a clear split between government and opposition. Contrary to the thinking of Elizabeth May - who, in an extraordinary breach from reality claimed that all Members form the government - backbenchers are not 'in government'. Like members of the opposition, they are outsiders looking in. Unlike opposition parties, they are placed uniquely by way of proximity and influence to help hold the government to account. Rathgeber's stunt, whatever truly motivated it, rings hollow.