PHOTOS: Independent MP Brent Rathgeber, in a typical pose, chats with a couple of constituents at last night’s candidates’ forum in St. Albert, Alberta. Below: Conservative candidate Michael Cooper, Mr. Rathgeber again, New Democrat Darlene Malayko and Liberal Beatrice Ghettuba.

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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Harper’s Ottawa.

Mr. 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 Mr. Rathgeber’s remarks in this post. But while all the candidates spoke well, all three of party standard-bearers – Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Ms. Malayko most forcefully.

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    1. I haven’t followed his voting record in detail, but I thought he said last night he voted against C-51. Perhaps he’ll comment and clarify.

    1. He indicated last night, as did all the candidates except Mr. Cooper as stated in the story, that he supported a woman’s right to choose.

  1. This Cooper, he looks completely useless looking to get a 6 figure free-rides who could not get a job in McDonalds. I seen and met him, a complete brainless man who has nothing to do with law making or legislation. Forget it. I do not understand how a party could allow such low quality dribbles running for important office and even give such news coverage. People in St. Albert should be ashamed to see among themselves they could not nominate a quality person and not Cooper. What a horrible mess for a city.

    1. That’s exactly the point; the Conservatives don’t want MPs who think for themselves, but seat warmers who will do what they are told. Thus, there is little point to have anyone with gravitas running for a seat. Those with any kind of backbone have already jumped ship.

      1. Right on. Now also look at what is happening with seat warmers from the loser PC Party. You have a number of former PC MLAs are trying to get to federal MP seats when they should be trying to get jobs in burger shops instead of ruining the nation, which they already did with Alberta. What a sadistic bunch trying to fool the citizens to vote for them so that they could go on earning $150K MP salary and all the perks that come with it when these loonies failed the province. And lo and behold, many ridings show that many of the loonies ahead of Liberal or NDP candidates. What a foolish Albertans to even consider these losers. Just check Edmonton Riverbend where a loser PC MLA is running to be a seat warmer in Ottawa and useless voters are trying to line up for conservatives when they have already divided the country.

  2. I voted nay on C 51 at Second Reading. I abstained on some of the Opposition Amendments, which all failed predictably, but I Voted against the Bill.

  3. I would have more time for Cooper if he would say what he apparently thinks – that abortion is a difficult issue for many people who are sincere Catholics and that he does not believe in taking human life, or pre-human life, in any circumstance. I think a lot of people who support the right of women to have an abortion when they decide could nevertheless respect Cooper if he said something like that. Instead, he comes across as a manipulative liar, which is either a reflection of his character or, if he’s doing what he’s told by the Conservatives, his lack of character.

  4. Dave , thanks for covering this forum and race.I am glad Brent is running, and I am personally looking forward to voting for him for the first time ever!

  5. I’ve voted NDP every election since I’ve been old enough to vote… but not this time, not in this jurisdiction. The polls show Harper’s pawn ahead by a good percentage with the other parties trailing. Only Rathgeber has a chance of keeping the riding out of the hands of the despicable autocratic tyrant. I’m holding my nose and voting for him.

  6. “… a voter asked candidates to clearly state their position of women’s reproductive rights…” Funny, thhis also happened Thursday night at the Grande Prairie Chamber of Commerce’s all-candidates’ forum, in the new riding of Grande Prairie-Mackenzie. The claimed incumbent, Chris Warkentin, and four challengers, faced voters in a somewhat limiting format, in which the moderator sometimes limited which candidate responded to a question. There were two questions in this policy area, both from a hard-core anti-choice perspective; one was answered by the Green Party candidate, James Friesen, and the Libertarian candidate (whose name escapes me); the other was directed only to the Liberal candidate, Reagan Johnston. All three supported a woman’s unfettered right to control over her own body, the Libertarian with a bizarre-sounding “evictionist” position.

    What I was disappointed with, though, in this discussion, was the lack of any talk about social determinants and creating societal conditions under which fewer women are placed in the position of facing this choice in the first place. Remember the words of Matt Santos in The West Wing? “I believe abortion should be safe… it should be legal… it should be a lot more rare than it is now” (or words to that effect).

  7. Rathgeber is supported by the socialist in conservative clothing Tomas Lukaszuk. Need we say more? Show him the door!

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