|The World According to Garth
On Oct. 18, Garth Turner, MP for the Ontario riding of Halton, was expelled from the Harper Party for having expressed an opinion on a matter of policy.
In an interview, Mr. Turner explains his ouster as a product of Stephen Harper’s secretive, autocratic regime, under which an elected MP needs permission to ask a question, debate or even represent his constituents.
October 28, 2006
GREG FELTON: How’s life as an independent?
GARTH TURNER: Well, so far I feel good. I’m just exploring the boundaries of what this means. I do have more freedom than I had as a Conservative member of Parliament. For example, I was able to ask a question in Question Period this week, whereas I had not been able to do that as a government MP. Ironically, I might end up being more effective in the next little while.
It doesn’t sound as if the MPs in the Harper government have any freedom whatever if they can’t ask a question in question period.
Yeah, I know. It’s actually rather sad. That’s what I learned and regrettably so. Members of the government cannot ask a question unless it has been approved by the minister, the person they are actually asking the question to; they can’t make a statement in the House unless it has been approved, and they’ve been given permission. They can’t speak during a debate, unless they’ve received permission. And even during committee meetings, which is usually a place where MPs usually are pretty free, government MPs cannot ask questions unless they’ve been approved by the government. It’s a very, very restrictive situation. I’ve been a Member of Parliament before and I have never encountered anything like this.
How would you characterize the Harper government? It doesn’t sound democratic.
Well, I do think there’s a gap between what it said—which is talking about freedom, reform, accountability and transparency—and reality. The reality is that prime minister wants to control things very tightly. He has pretty much an iron grip on everything, and it causes problems for guys like me. I don’t think I work for the prime minister; I think I work for my voters, the people who sent me to Ottawa.
Would it be too much to say that Stephen Harper’s approach to government is that of a dictatorship?
“National caucus is not a place for debate. In fact, in my time during the national caucus I never saw a free-wheeling debate on policy. During the Israeli–Lebanon conflict we did not have a policy debate. An attempt was made to have one during the summer at a caucus meeting, but it was shut down… by the caucus chairperson, Rahim Jaffer.”
Somewhat. He’s not the first guy to try to control government. Mulroney did it. Chrétien did it a little more, but Mr. Harper is certainly more in that vein than I’ve seen any other prime minister. It’s very hard for an MP to represent his constituents in any effective way, but that is the fault of our system. People only get one vote, and with that vote they get to choose a local candidate, a national leader, a party and a platform. Because the prime minister has so much power. It becomes very difficult for individual citizens to have any input once they’ve cast their ballots. As much as we can vilify Stephen Harper maybe for the way he has conducted himself so far, or for my situation, we also need to talk about electoral reform. The real question here, is “how can an individual Member of Parliament represent his or her people within a party structure?”
Did you have any inkling that Harper was going to expel you after you spoke out on his environmental policy?
I didn’t know what was going to happen to me until it actually did happen. I knew there was some concern about me speaking out; I know there was some concern about the Green Plan because I expressed what I felt we should have in it, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were some kind of confrontation coming, but I had no idea I would be given the bum’s rush that quickly or in a surprise fashion like that.
Describe a typical caucus meeting when you were in government.
National caucus is not a place for debate. In fact, in my time during the national caucus I never saw a free-wheeling debate on policy. During the Israeli–Lebanon conflict we did not have a policy debate. An attempt was made to have one during the summer at a caucus meeting, but it was shut down.
Who shut it down, Harper?
No, it was shut down by the caucus chairperson, Rahim Jaffer. It’s his job to control the meetings; so, there has been no debate. My view of caucus is a place where everybody goes and they are all equal and they hash things out, and the party comes up with a position, but national caucus is not like that. It is a time for party administration and the cabinet ministers to tell other people what they’re doing. They take a few questions, but there’s not a debate.
You would think that caucus would be the one place where backbench MPs could speak freely behind closed doors.
That is the traditional definition of a caucus, and traditionally it should be open for debate, but the caucus that Mr. Harper runs is from the top down; it’s not from the bottom up. And it is for caucus to be instructed, not for the party administration to be told.
Have you ever seen a caucus treated like this before?
No, this is new to me. I’ve never seen a caucus this controlled or with such little debate or consultation. I also never seen a caucus where someone was thrown out because they had differences of opinion on policy that was not fundamental. I could see, if during the Mulroney years, somebody said, “You’re an idiot for bringing in the GST and I’m going to the media and say so,” they’d probably be thrown out. It was a key plank. But I haven’t done that, and I haven’t done anything in my view that merited my being thrown out, nor have I been given any evidence. It is just simply because they did not like somebody expressing their opinion.
Would you say that, to all intents and purposes, Stephen Harper has criminalized dissent within the party?
Those are pretty strong words. I think dissent is discouraged, and I am an example of what happens to dissenters.
To your knowledge, have any other MPs been intimidated or coerced into keeping silent on matters of government policy with which they have a personal or moral disagreement?
I can’t tell you of any individual members, but I can tell you that all Members of Parliament have been told not to talk to the media and if they do there’ll be consequences, and to me that’s intimidation.
Do you think that, if an election were called soon, some members of the government would feel uncomfortable running for Stephen Harper’s Party?
I would not be surprised. However, each MP will have to decide if they will be more easily elected as a part of the Conservative Party or not. I would hope that some of them look into their hearts, and ask themselves, “how effectively can I represent people?’
Because the government is an amalgam of two different interest groups—The old Reform Party, which is heavily Christian and populist, and the Progressive Conservative wing, which is more moderate and less ideologically driven—could the party rupture because of the way Stephen Harper has conducted himself?
I believe there’s a tension that lies under the surface. I think the fact that I’m a Progressive Conservative has something to do with how I’ve been treated. I’m not saying it’s the reason but I think it’s a factor. I also regret that one of the best things of the Reform Party, its populism and grassroots democratic spirit, is no longer evident. I think that’s a real sad thing.
Do you think the Harper government's dead-in the water as far as the next election is concerned?
We’re too far away from another election for me to make any predictions. The Canadian people will decide.
Have you had a number of people telling you “Party on, Garth!”?
Heh! Heh! I’ve been getting tremendous support from across Canada. Some people say “Garth, you had it coming. You should have shut up and just followed the leader.” Other people are extremely supportive of the fact I want to represent my voters first and my party second. They think that’s how politics should be. That’s helped me get through this.
Will you be contesting the next election?
My intention is to run in the next election, yes. I can’t tell you at this time if I’ll be running as an independent or under another banner.