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Parliament

The ‘Trained Seals’ strike back

But only because the PMO told them they could

Government backbenchers attacked MP Brent Rathgeber, who quit the caucus last week after saying the Conservatives have “morphed into what we have once mocked.”

Within 24 hours of Mr. Rathgeber’s (Edmonton-St. Albert, Alta.) exit from the Conservative caucus, members of the government’s backbenches began to take aim at the now Independent MP by disputing his comments and questioning his professionalism.

“He can’t get along with people in the sandbox,” said Tory MP Greg Rickford (Kenora, Ont.), Parliamentary Secretary for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. “Brent spoke for himself. He’s always been that way. As a provincial legislator he couldn’t get along with people.”

Mr. Rickford told The Hill Times that he “didn’t appreciate” statements made by Mr. Rathgeber following the announcement of his resignation late last Wednesday evening.

Mr. Rathgeber announced his resignation from the Conservative caucus on June 5 on Twitter, hours after the Conservative-dominated House Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee amended his private member’s bill, Bill C-461, which would have required the annual salaries of public servants in excess of $188,000 to be made public. Conservative members of the committee raised the disclosure threshold to $444,000.

This amendment, dubbed by Mr. Rathgeber as “the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” led the Alberta MP to announce his resignation from Conservative caucus late Wednesday night.

The morning after announcing his resignation from the Tory caucus, Mr. Rathgeber wrote on his blog that the “Government’s lack of support for my transparency bill is tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally.”

On his blog, Mr. Rathgeber wrote that the $188,000 salary was a compromise itself, and noted that various provinces have “sunshine laws” that disclose the names and departments of individuals that make upwards of $100,000.

“Even setting the benchmark significantly higher than any of the provinces that maintain ‘Sunshine Lists’ was apparently not supportable by a Cabinet intent on not disclosing how much it pays its senior advisors,” wrote Mr. Rathgeber.

He also identified the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) former chief of staff Nigel Wright, and the $90,000 cheque Mr. Wright gave to Senator Mike Duffy to cover ineligible expense claims as a contributing factor to his decision to leave the Conservative caucus.

“We have morphed into what we have once mocked,” he wrote.

Mr. Rathgeber ended the scathing blog post by writing, “I no longer recognize much of the party that I joined and whose principles (at least on paper), I still believe in. Accordingly, since I can no longer stand with them, I must now stand alone.”

In a press conference following his arrival in Edmonton on June 6, Mr. Rathgeber blasted PMO staffers for controlling MPs as though they were “trained seals,” although he said he supported Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.).

First of all Rathgeber is totally right.  Backbench MPs are trained seals which means that many talented people will not choose to run for office because they don’t want to have every speech vetted by the PMO and have no input in on government decisions ever.  

Then you get a cycle were because talented people aren’t interested in becoming MPs so you are left with many MPs from both parties who are minor league quality which of course requires more PMO oversight which then discourages competent people to run.  Eventually you get to a situation where trained seals could do the job of many MPs as long as they can sign off on the ten percenters.

The reason why people got upset with Rathgeber is because it hit close to home.  That and the PMO told them to be upset.  Then it gave them a fish as a reward.

Our Parliament is Falling Apart

While democracy in Canada has seen better days, Centre Block which holds the House of Commons and the Senate is struggling as well.

The Centre Block of Canada’s three-part Parliament Buildings — which houses the Senate, the House of Commons and prime minister Stephen Harper’s office — is “seriously deteriorating” and will “reach the end of its life cycle” in seven years, according to the man in charge of renovations on Parliament Hill.

It’s a nail biter because work on a temporary home for the House of Commons in the West Block isn’t expected to be finished until 2017 and, in the meantime, tape, wood and netting are holding together parts of the iconic structure.

This past February, water leakage in Centre Block caused one of two transformers providing power to the Hill to explode “because it came to the end of its useful life,” Assistant Deputy Minister Pierre-Marc Mongeau told the Government Operations Committee Thursday.

The neo-gothic stone building — the only one in the world to be so well conserved — was re-built in 1922 after a fire destroyed the original building.

But, despite the ongoing efforts of maintenance staff to “do all they can,” Mongeau told the committee that the building’s aging structural, mechanical and technical systems are at “a critical risk of total failure by 2019.”

Mongeau said if the systems fail, the building could become unsafe for use requiring it “to be shut down.”

In 1994 and 1995, the façade of the building was repaired, but Mongeau said the other three less-visible sides were not.

Ventilation towers are “taped,” with wood pieces around them and pieces of stained glass windows in the House of Commons are beginning to fall out, he said.

“That means that we need to put in a net protection around those windows and visually that doesn’t look so good,” he said.

“Clearly it’s not likely to get better until it’s fixed,” said Liberal MP John McCallum, “but, I think (Mongeau) felt that it was manageable.”

“I’ve been there for 12 years and I’ve never had the feeling that it’s falling apart,” he said. “There are things that need repair, and it’s unfortunate that it’s going to take so many years before it’s done, but I’ve never been sitting in Parliament or walking around Centre Block thinking that I’m in a crumbling building.”

However, he said the building is the “central block of our democracy” and he’d “rather wait a few more years… and have a building of which we can be proud than do it faster and make mistakes.”

Conservative MP Mike Wallace wasn’t surprised to hear about the problems due to the sheer age of the buildings, although he said he hadn’t noticed any obvious signs of the deterioration.

“It is a fair age and, if you look around your own home, the older it gets, the more work it needs,” he said.

Mongeau was not available for comment Friday.

The House of Commons is expected to be re-housed in the modernized “energy efficient” West Block — complete with a three-layer glass ceiling, which will trap heat and supply 10 per cent of the building’s energy needs on sunny days, “even in winter” — before its end-of-life date in 2019.

The Senate will be moved to the East Block.

Painstaking rehabilitation work began on the West Block in earnest in 2007 after workers finished completely overhauling both the exterior and the interior of the 130-year-old Library of Parliament Building in the spring of 2006.

For those of us who call Saskatoon home and watched the almost painfully slow rehabilitation of the Peter McKinnon Building knows how long it takes to bring back a building to life.  Renovations change the way a building works, materials interact differently then expected, and then you have to decide what it is going to have to in the future and make it work in the context of the original architectural vision.  It’s harder than it looks.

The future of Canada’s democracy