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November 27, 2006

Posted by Scott V in Canada Politics.
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PMO a fortress of solitude, maverick MP charges

Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Rank-and-file Conservative MPs have no say in fashioning the centrepiece policies of the Harper government, says a former Tory caucus member who was booted from party ranks last month.

Garth Turner also says that, while MPs are being muzzled, he believes there is a pipeline between Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office and some activists on the religious right — or as he calls them, “the righteous right.”

The maverick Toronto-area MP, who now sits as an independent, says the Conservative environmental plan, the budget, tax cuts, the income trust decision and military policy in Afghanistan were all presented to the caucus as done deals, not as subjects for debate.

“Caucus has not been involved in substantive policy issues at all,” Mr. Turner said in an interview. “That has been, I guess, one of my greatest surprises and greatest disappointments — that we have not, as members of the caucus, been allowed to discuss any substantive policy issues.”

Mr. Turner isn’t a newcomer to politics. He was a Conservative MP under Brian Mulroney from 1988 to 1993 and was revenue minister in Kim Campbell’s short-lived government in 1993.

He says he’s never seen MPs treated this way.

“There has never been a policy debate where people have lined up at the microphone and been asked for input into a pending policy decision in the national caucus, and that has been a huge difference from my experience in the past, where that is the reason that caucus existed.”

There have been meetings where cabinet ministers presented policies and took questions about them, but there was no debate.

“Why the heck are we here?” Mr. Turner asks in frustration. “We’re supposed to be here representing people. We’re supposed to be bringing back what the grassroots and the voters are saying in the ridings, and bringing it back for a distillation here in Ottawa to help influence government policy.

“That’s what an MP does.”

Last summer, with the war in Lebanon raging, a Tory MP tried to open that subject up for debate. “She was shut down,” Mr. Turner said, adding that Harper later came out with a policy that was strongly pro-Israeli without any discussion by his MPs.

Mr. Turner portrays the government as a rigid, top-down operation, which brooks no dissent and where the Prime Minister’s Office holds a tight rein, to the point where Mr. Harper’s staff sit in on caucus meetings.

“I’ve never been in a national caucus before where there are so many PMO staffers. It’s quite extraordinary.”

He says Mr. Harper has no time for dissenters, unlike Mr. Mulroney, who stroked and cajoled cantankerous MPs and largely maintained caucus loyalty even while his public support was in fee fall.

Mr. Turner, a self-described “pain in the ass,” said there was no room for his outspoken views in this Conservative party.

While MPs may not get much say in policy, Mr. Turner suspects that some in the religious right have unusual influence in the government.

“I believe there is a pipeline from a certain constituency, whatever you want to call it, righteous right, I believe there is a pipeline into the Prime Minister’s Office and into the party.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Turner took part in a TV debate with Charles McVety, an evangelical leader who has been a driving force in the fight against same-sex marriage.

The MP says there was a telling moment in that debate when Mr. McVety looked at him and said: “You know what? I can pick up the phone and call Mr. Harper and I can get him in two minutes. It’s going to take you a month.”

Mr. Turner paused.

“I think he’s right.”

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