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Rathgeber’s exit shows Conservative split between populists and moderates

On its face, Brent Rathgeber's decision to quit the Conservative caucus because his private member's bill was gutted is foolish. But it reveals the depth of the rift between the Reform roots of the Conservative Party and its leader, Stephen Harper. And that is very dangerous for the Prime Minister.

Let's deal first with the proximate cause of Mr. Rathgeber's resignation. The Edmonton MP had sponsored a bill that would have forced the disclosure of employees in the public service who make more than $188,000 a year. Because the bill is called the CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, its intent was clearly, in part, to embarrass and discredit the public broadcaster.

But no matter: sunshine laws are already in place in Ontario and elsewhere and the public wants to know who is living well off its taxes. The bill had strong support on the Conservative side.

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But the party leadership apparently didn't want to see every assistant deputy minister and news anchor's salary splashed across the pages of the newspapers. So Conservative MPs, following orders, amended the bill in committee to raise the disclosure limit to $444,000, which very few people who work for government or the CBC make.

That does not justify Mr. Rathgeber's resignation from caucus. The electors of Edmonton-St. Albert did not vote for him based on his commitment to legislation disclosing the salaries of public-sector employees. They voted for the Conservative candidate on the ballot. Unless the government egregiously violated some core principle of its electoral platform, Mr. Rathgeber had no cause to quit. He calls his decision one of principle; others could reasonably see it as a fit of pique.

But as Mr. Rathgeber explained in a blogpost, his decision to sit as an independent is actually rooted in what he sees as the Conservative government's abandonment of the principles on which the Reform Party was founded.

He wrote that Conservatives were sent to Ottawa "to clean the place up." Instead, he complained, "we have morphed into what we once mocked. …I no longer recognize much of the party that I joined."

So this is really about Duffygate. About $16 orange juice. About shutting down debate on abortion.

The Conservative Party is a coalition of populist conservatives in rural and Western Canada, and moderate conservatives living in Ontario suburbs.

Until now, Stephen Harper has done a good job of keeping that coalition intact. But recent events reveal that the populist wing is becoming increasingly frustrated.

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If this Prime Minister has one job, right now, it is to contain the frustration among the populists without alienating the moderates. Mr. Rathgeber's resignation suggests that he's not doing that job very well.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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