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Parliament is Beautiful From the Outside, and a Sham Inside

03/12/2014 12:50 EDT | Updated 05/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Visiting Ottawa in the winter is one of those seminal Canadian moments where you witness a city attempting to capture winter as opposed to succumbing to it. Our family skated the Rideau Canal last week, visited the Market, drove through Gatineau, and enjoyed good friends.

Yet I wondered how I would feel when walking by the Parliament Buildings -- my old stomping grounds in those years I was a Member of Parliament. The great structure wasn't in session, but outside hundreds of visitors were caught up in its grandeur and taking endless photos.

But it's what's sadly going on in the inside that's somewhat more foreboding. We listened as one group of tourists from British Columbia decried what had become of one of the great parliamentary institutions in the world. Others agreed, including one woman who felt there was more patriotism outside the House than could normally be witnessed inside. She had a point -- something captured well by author Mark Kingwell:

"That air of bozo entitlement, coupled with a routine disregard of anybody else's views or right to speak: pretty much your basic definition of incivility ... If these are even partly indicative of what our elected representatives are like -- and they are -- then we're all in a mess of trouble."

Well, that's hardly good news, but it is an absolutely fair assessment. I recall moving up those grand steps of Centre Block for the first time following my election and the sense of responsibility and history that suddenly seemed to descend onto my shoulders. It was an occasion of great import and abiding humility.

A mere week later, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into, as the catcalls, denunciations, and high school behaviour almost succeeded in pushing that sense of history into the dustbin. I hadn't been naïve going in the Chamber, but nothing had quite prepared me for the crudeness of human behaviour that I witnessed.

Where was the respect -- not only for other parliamentarians, but the civil service, the Speaker of the House, even the traditions of democracy? Something was clearly out of sorts, driven to extremes by a rank kind of partisanship that was a close-minded as it was sterile in its abilities.

The worst of it, however, is gauged by its sheer dishonouring of the average Canadian citizen, perhaps best seen in the government's design to overhaul Elections Canada in a manner that would suppress voter turnout. The Harper government says it's all about the protection of the fairness of federal elections. Sounds good, except that it does nothing to address the Robocall scandal that so characterized the last election, or the "permanent election" nature of our present Parliament that exhausts and hollows out the voter even years prior to heading to the ballot box.

The crisis of democracy in Canada has exceedingly little to do with the technicalities surrounding elections. Our greatest problem is about low voter turnout and the absolute inability of elected representatives and their parties to behave in such a fashion as to draw the interest and imagination of the electorate to those larger issues of policy that now confront us and which Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand says will remain unaddressed with the government's present treatment.

I knew these various government ministers, some of them fairly well, in my time in office and the knowledge that their combined efforts to cover-up government actions rather than disclosing them must at some point trouble their individual and collective conscience. They diss the other parties and lay waste to any move to make the House more transparent 0- all in the name of democracy. It is a sham and it must inwardly demean them.

If it is true that decency and respect are the oil that makes the machine of democracy function, then we are at one of our lowest points in our brief sojourn as a nation. Regardless of what is happening in the country, one would hope, and trust, that our elected representatives and our government could maintain a respectful discourse in a Chamber built on decency and history.

Respect is neither some kind of tool or a means to an end; it is the very heartbeat of the democratic experiment. Parliament has lost it somewhere, but perhaps those milling about outside, taking pictures, and still feeling the overpowering sense of history in those buildings, can find it. As it is, we look to Canadians to rescue their own representatives from the sham of democracy our government has embellished.

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