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Independent MP Brent Rathgeber gives former Tory insider's take on the sins of Harper PMO

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Brent Rathgeber

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ST. ALBERT, Alberta

The only Independent candidate in Canada with any hope of winning on Oct. 19  gave a persuasive and troubling analysis last night of just how far the Harper Government has gone astray.

To hear former Conservative caucus member Brent Rathgeber tell it during an all-candidates' forum in the Edmonton-area commuter city of St. Albert, the country has become all but a dictatorship run out of a Prime Minister's Office with a defective moral compass.

Rathgeber, 51, has been the Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert since 2008, when he was first elected as a Conservative. He's quite popular in the riding and was re-elected in 2011 with more than 60 per cent of the vote.

But in June 2013, Rathgeber resigned from the Conservative caucus in a dispute over the government's treatment of a private member's bill he had proposed. At the time, he described his parting with his former party as stemming from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "lack of commitment to transparency and open government."

However, Rathgeber was probably already in hot water with the Harper PMO for his outspoken and often entertaining blog, which on occasion even before his defection dared to mildly criticize the government, a potentially politically fatal act in Harper's Ottawa.

Rathgeber must now be seen as an underdog as he seeks re-election as an Independent in the slightly renamed and slightly redrawn St. Albert-Edmonton constituency. Local polls suggest he is lagging the Conservative candidate, 31-year-old Michael Cooper, in what at least until the recent provincial election has seemed like a reflexively Conservative area.

I hope readers, especially the riding's New Democrats and Liberals, will forgive me for focusing on Rathgeber's remarks in this post. But while all the candidates spoke well, all three of party standard-bearers -- Cooper, New Democrat Darlene Malayko and Liberal Beatrice Ghettuba -- stuck close to their parties' core campaign boilerplate. A general report is bound to show up soon in the local newspaper.

Describing his potentially quixotic run for a third term as "the fight for a better functioning Parliament," Rathgeber set the scene with a dark assessment of the Harper PMO: "The revelations at the Mike Duffy trial confirm that the Prime Minister's Office micromanages and controls everything inside the Ottawa bubble," he declared.

"Junior staffers concocting schemes, micromanaging legislators, providing bogus stories covered by flimsy talking points, and all with a haphazard respect for truth, are all indicative of a Prime Minister's Office run with a malfunctioning moral compass," he went on.

"Parliament was designed to be a check on Executive power," Rathgeber stated. "Scandal is the inevitable result of a system not based on transparency or accountability. Secrecy leads to backroom deals, and nobody questioning what is being done.

"For a government elected in 2006 on a promise to clean up the Liberals' Sponsorship Scandal, the Harperites have certainly missed the standard they set for themselves," he averred.

Rathgeber then turned to dismantling the prime minister's mostly self-constructed reputation as a capable economic manager.

"The recent confirmation of a second recession under Stephen Harper's watch negates the mythology of Stephen Harper as some sort of brilliant economic manager," Rathgeber argued. "Seven consecutive deficits, adding over $150 billion to the national debt, including the single largest debt in Canadian history, compromises the government's fiscal capacity to deal with the current recession, which has seen almost 40,000 high-paying energy and construction related jobs lost right here in Alberta.

"Lack of respect for taxpayers, for open government, for Parliament, lack of respect for institutions such as the Supreme Court, the ignoring of science and fact-based decision making are all legacies of the Harper Conservatives that are forcing many small-c conservatives, such as myself, to re-evaluate how politics is done in this country."

Making his pitch for local votes, Rathgeber dismissed the party alternatives to the Conservatives as suffering from many of the same flaws, telling the 250 or so citizens who packed a local hotel ballroom, "regardless of who becomes prime minister after Oct. 19, Canadians must hope for a strong Parliament to keep whoever the government is on a short leash.

"The question becomes what do you fear more: the damage that Stephen Harper has already done to our parliamentary institutions or the damage that any of the alternatives would do to our economy?" (Remember, people, Rathgeber is a rebel conservative, but he is still a conservative.) "Whichever option you find less unpalatable, you'd better hope for a strong Parliament to hold that government's feet to the fire!"

Concluding his formal remarks, Rathgeber cast his candidacy as an opportunity for voters in one riding 'to participate in a process to reverse decades of decline in our civil discourse, to de-concentrate power away from the Prime Minister's Office and return it to the elected Parliament where it belongs."

Responding to a questioner, he  described the Conservatives' effort to turn religious head coverings into an election issue as 'unbecoming of a Canadian prime minister' and something that in the long run 'makes us all less safe."

Conservative Michael Cooper refuses to answer audience questions on his abortion views

Things heated up when forum moderator John Farlinger opened the floor to questions from the audience -- in written form -- and a voter asked candidates to clearly state their position of women's reproductive rights.

Conservative candidate Michael Cooper, who like Rathgeber is a lawyer by profession, has been exercising his training in making fine distinctions to sidestep questions about his views on abortion rights ever since a radical anti-abortion group endorsed him on its website. The Campaign Life Coalition told its supporters Cooper is opposed to a woman's right to have an abortion even if she is the victim of rape or her life is in danger.

When Cooper skated around the question again last night -- repeating only that the Harper Government has promised not to reopen the question in Parliament -- there were shouts of "answer the question" from the floor. He wouldn't.

However Campaign Life came by Cooper's opinions on the issue -- his campaign manager says he didn't respond to the group's questionnaire -- it's said here it must have accurately reflected his views given his efforts the past several days to avoid saying what he thinks. Of course, if he publicly says otherwise, it will be duly reported here.

Rathgeber used his opponent's bobbing and weaving last night to illustrate what he says is wrong with the Harper Government approach to strict party discipline.

"You're getting the worst of both worlds. Mr. Cooper would not tell us his views even though they've been covered on the Internet since last week."

All other candidates indicated they supported a woman's right to choose, the NDP's Malayko most forcefully.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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