Canada government pressured as MP quits, defense minister grumbles

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A legislator from Canada’s ruling Conservatives quit unexpectedly and on Thursday accused the government of being secretive and overly controlling, boosting pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he tries to contain a scandal over expenses.

Canada's Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during the fourth plenary session of the 12th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore June 2, 2013. REUTERS/Edgar Su

And Defense Minister Peter MacKay, who is potentially one of Harper’s biggest rivals, suggested he also might quit if the party adopted new rules for electing a leader that would crush his chances of taking over one day.

The Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons and the next election is not scheduled until October 2015. But a growing number of legislators are unhappy with both the scandal and what they see as excessive control from Harper’s office.

Harper - who came to power vowing to clean up government - has been on the defensive since last month, when news broke that his chief of staff had given a large check to help a member of the Senate repay expenses he had improperly claimed.

Brent Rathgeber, a member of Parliament from the Conservatives’ western stronghold of Alberta, resigned from the caucus late on Wednesday and complained the government was not really interested in transparency.

“I fear we’re morphing into what we once mocked,” he told reporters on Thursday, slamming officials in Harper’s office who he said were accountable to no one, not even the prime minister.

Rathgeber’s departure from the caucus cuts the Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons to eight.

Another six or seven legislators are known to be unhappy with Harper, who could be in danger if the rebels abstained from key votes. Rathgeber said around a dozen Tory legislators had sent e-mails of support.

Recent opinion polls show the opposition Liberals would easily take power if an election were held now.

When the Liberals asked questions about Rathgeber’s comments in the House of Commons, the government did not answer.

Rathgeber, who says legislators are supposed to hold the government to account, quit after a Conservative-dominated parliamentary committee weakened a bill he had proposed to reveal the salaries of senior bureaucrats.

“Stephen Harper may not be taking this scandal seriously but, as we saw last night, his backbenchers are,” said Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official opposition New Democrats.

Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s chief spokesman, called on Rathgeber to resign his seat and campaign in a special election as an independent.

The Conservative Party was created in 2003 by merging the right-leaning low-tax tough-on-crime Canadian Alliance party with the more centrist Progressive Conservatives.

But there are still tensions between the Alliance wing and the Progressive Conservatives, who were led by Peter MacKay at the time of the merger.

MacKay, who is from Nova Scotia in eastern Canada, insisted at the time of the merger that the Conservative leader be elected by membership associations in each parliamentary district, which means no one region would dominate.

A party convention later this month will discuss whether to change that to a one-member one-vote system, which would give a much bigger voice to Conservative strongholds in western Canada.

Asked about the implications of the proposed changes, MacKay told the National Post: “People would leave the party.”

Asked if he would leave, he replied: “I’d think about it. It would be a very different party with a very different future.”

Although MacKay has helped fight off previous attempts to change the voting system, his comments underline the stresses inside the Conservatives.

Harper brooks no dissent inside the party and none of his potential challengers has talked about a challenge. MacKay is widely considered to be a leading contender.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman