Brent Rathgeber, the Member for Edmonton-St. Albert:
He argued Thursday that MPs like him are in many cases better-positioned than the opposition to question government policies.
“The Opposition’s constitutional mandate is to criticize and oppose. However, sometimes a critique from the Conservatives’ own benches will be more effective, as opposition barbs are frequently written off as partisan gamesmanship,” he wrote in a blog posted Thursday.
Like the believed detection of the Higgs-Boson particle, the discovery of a backbench Conservative MP with a backbone is a historic occasion. For years now Canadian political scientists have pondered the implications of a principled conservative not simply existing in the Tory caucus, but more actually speaking his mind in public. News of the possible discovery of a thinking backbencher may undermine the whole basis of modern Canadian Parliamentary government.
While British backbenchers routinely ask their "Right Honourable Friends" on the Treasury Bench awkward questions, this is a mostly unheard of phenomenon here in the Elder Dominion. The only people allowed to ask awkward questions, and then only in the manner of a schoolyard taunt, are the party leaders. The followers of the party chieftains are suppose to bark as ordered. Cabinet ministers are expected to repeat their carefully memorized talking points. The one thing that never happens in Question Period is the asking of a real question. That would be a dangerous thing. Much like having a parliamentary debate in parliament. Too radical a notion for modern Canadian politicians to even contemplate.
Lester Pearson bequeath many gifts to his country: A foreign policy based on hazy sentimentality, an unsustainable socialized health care system, half a century of appeasement toward Quebec nationalism, the gutting of key Canadian traditions, the marginalization of the military and the replacement of our historic flag with the Liberal Party corporate logo. Yet it can be argued that his most disastrous influence was his dithering leadership of the Liberal Party caucus, and his plucking of Pierre Trudeau from relative obscurity. The former example convinced the latter leader that to rule Canada required an iron hand.
Thus began two of the great themes of modern Canadian political life, the centralization of power in Ottawa, while in Ottawa power became centralized in the PMO. Cabinet ministers were transformed increasingly into clerks while MPs became ciphers. This was driven ultimately by the increasing size and scope and government, but aided mightily by Trudeau's own authoritarian instincts. There is a long tradition in French speaking society, as in most Latin cultures, of a strong man heroically leading his people to glory. When they executed their monarch they simply replaced him with generals on horseback (Napoleon) or tank turret (de Gaulle).
Trudeau's method of government, necessarily expanded upon by his successors of both parties, was a key element in the maintaining of Trudeaupia. In the United States any backwoods Congressman can raise, usually in the most histrionic fashion possible, awkward questions of the powers that be. A figure like Paul Ryan, an intelligent critique of the Bush-Obama State, simply could not emerge in Canada. North of the 49th he would have been swiftly silenced by the party whips. In America the elected class is more afraid of the electorate than their leadership. I believe the Yankees call this sort of thing democracy.
While far from perfect America's democratic politics, fitted sometimes uncomfortably with its constitutional republican structure, allows for actual debate and criticism. Not always, but enough to keep new ideas churning into the body politic. Few new ideas are allowed to churn in Canadian politics without having first passed through the brain of a federal party leader, an often arduous and unfruitful process. Our rigid political oligopoly has helped breed our modern political stagnation.
Stifling debate is essential to maintaining Trudeaupia. We can't have MPs asking questions like: "Why does so much of the money spent on social programs go into the pockets of middle class bureaucrats instead of actual poor people?" What would our national politics be like if Canadians were told by their elected officials that somewhere between a third and a half of all the money spent on health care, education and poverty assistance is wasted? That so much of the modern professional Left are little more than hustlers for an inter-generational ponzi scheme?
Canadians have slowly become disillusioned with the Trudeaupian project. A few tiny cracks in the statist consensus, like the pre-PM Stephen Harper calling Canada a northern European welfare state, are enough to drive the Left to apoplexy. Imagine how long they'd last in a free and open debate between, say, William Gairdner and Bob Rae?
Thanks to CRTC regulations, which directly and indirectly limit media choice in Canada, matched with the centralizing tendency of our economics (i.e. half the population with a few hours drive of Ottawa), has created an unusually incestuous and complacent media. That matched with our neutered political discourse keeps the Trudeaupian myth well protected. It's lasted for nearly fifty years, but the strains are showing.
Brent Rathgeber might be a maverick conservative ready to push the boundaries of political discourse, or he might just be a media hound. I don't know. What we have seen in the year and a bit since the Tory majority was at last obtained is a slackening of the PMO's crip on the caucus. Some Conservatives MPs are beginning to act conservatively. Whether this is in defiance of the Prime Minister's will, or with his connivance, matters less than the simple fact that it is happening. Should it continue it would have far greater benefits than the ending of the long-gun registry, or the scrapping of the Wheat Board.
It might even mean the real rolling back of government.