The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: decency

Time to Occupy Parliament?

This blog post appeared as a London Free Press article on  December 10, 2011

The media’s ongoing reporting of the misleading attacks on Montreal MP Irwin Cotler has once again highlighted Parliament’s downhill slide. When I commented on the attacks to a Conservative MP this past week that was seeking some advice on charitable giving, all he could say was, ”Yeah, we all like Irwin. It’s kind of sick.” Sick indeed.

When Rick Mercer stated last week in his rant that it’s time to lock up Parliament and throw away the key it was a sentiment that registered across the country. This past decade has witnessed the sad decline of what once was an honourable institution. Everything from financial scandal a decade ago to contempt of Parliament by the present government itself have characterized and diminished its reputation to all time lows.

Maybe it’s time to call for a revolution. We could call it “Occupy Parliament.” After all, it would be obvious to state that the 99% of parliamentarians are dominated by the elite 1% – the PMO and its minions. Ever since the days of Pierre Trudeau the office of the Prime Minister has succeeded in transcending the parliamentary function of the legislature itself. But when we reach the point where a government can openly admit and brag about fabricating stories about a highly respected MP and former Minister of Justice in order to capture his seat, we have perhaps reached an all-time low. Canadians are now abandoning a Parliament they feel deserted them years ago.

There is only one problem with the idea of occupying the House of Commons – only 308 people can do it. Elected parliamentarians get exclusive access, security and the special lapel pin that permits them entry into the hallowed Chamber. When the House is in session their staff or spouses can’t accompany them. They stand isolated and empowered as elected representatives undertaking the country’s business. Only they and their peers can fix the mess they have permitted to brew under their watch.

In days past elected representatives were masters of their own house, responsible to their constituencies above all else. The decades have seen to the marginalization of individual members, first in favour of the cabinet and presently under the heel of the Prime Minister and his elite staff. So if parliamentarians wanted to reverse the precarious decline of representative behaviour they would have to reclaim the House for their constituents.

At its heart the worldwide Occupy movement is about opposing the few who have utilized the levers of power and finance to control the lives and opportunities of the many. Parliament has incrementally descended to the same state of inequality. Rather than holding their MPs accountable to their constituencies, most citizens have simply opted out, thereby enforcing what is already an unacceptable situation.

My time in Parliament taught me that the vast majority of MPs are honourable and dedicated individuals. The problem is that they function within a system where party structure often prohibits the better angels of their nature to guide their conduct. This is especially true of government MPs, who secretly deplore the PMO’s deplorable tactics while still condoning such demeaning conduct by their very silence.

Do today’s MPs have the courage to stand with the House of the people against their own political masters when the occasion demands it? To date the answer would have to be a clear “no”? Perhaps what they require is the courage, mustered by their own citizens and constituents, to do the honourable thing and stop silently condoning what surely must be one of the saddest eras in Canada’s parliamentary democracy.

It is surely time for our federal political representatives to occupy the very House their constituents voted them in to. As Edmund Burke famously put it, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I have learned that good men and women occupy the House of Commons. They question now is: will they at last show up to rescue Parliament from its more debased instincts and speak for us?

The Five-Year Lesson

Interesting day yesterday. My wife Jane read me a Toronto Star story about two 73 year-old men who got into an embarrassing tussle on the eve of this year’s Grey Cup battle in Vancouver. Watching this CBC video later in the morning, I was surprised to discover one of the belligerents was Joe Kapp, former BC Lions quarterback who helped the team to win the Grey Cup in 1963.

Me, Joe Kapp, and Mom in 1960

Few remember it now but Kapp used to be the quarterback for the Calgary Stampeders just prior to his Vancouver sojourn. I was 10 years old at the time and the mascot for the team. Back then football players didn’t make much and Joe Kapp lived at our house beside the stadium during the season. He was my hero. This picture is of Joe, my mother, and me in 1960 (notice the #11). I traveled with the team, picking up a lot of football skills in the process. When he left for Vancouver a couple of years later, I was disconsolate.

Kapp went on to greatness. He was the key quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL, even taking the team to the Super Bowl.  For many he is remembered for his stint in Hollywood and his role in the Burt Reynold’s film The Longest Yard. So to read of his behaviour and to see it was a bit disillusioning. It’s not at all as I remember him over the years we were together – he was a real gentleman and a great professional.

And then it was five years ago yesterday I had won the by-election for the federal Parliament. I hadn’t wanted to run but my wife thought it was the right thing for what we believed in and the look of joy on her face that night remains with me still. For the greatest person I’ve ever met to feel proud of me … well, let’s just say it meant a lot to me.

And then the thoughts of those difficult years in the House of Commons introduced a shadow to my recollections. For almost five years we couldn’t seem to provide a place where the public could feel confidence or even respect for those administering their affairs. Citizens could neither find a place for their civic activity in Ottawa, nor a voice for that civility in their representatives. Under our oversight (and I was a part of it), politics became almost exclusively the field of the professionals and citizenship became even more a private pursuit. As a result, Canadians withdrew into themselves, their anger, and their frustration, and, sadly, into their prejudices.

For almost five years I watched the “commons” almost vanish from the House of Commons and in its place was mere partisan staging. Democracy quickly descended into tribalism, the common cause descended into mutual contempt. While experts debated consequences, Canadians watched answers to our greatest challenges dissipate to mere bromides. The government played favourites among competing private groups rather than upholding basic citizens’ rights to be involved in those decisions that directly affected them. In my time I observed as our communities became ever more distant from their national capital.

Yet five years also revealed one clear and unmistakable reality to me: despite massive public cynicism, there existed a burgeoning hunger for civic engagement and the responsibility for self-direction. I quickly learned that the vacuum left by the retreat of senior government forces was steadily being filled by average people anxious for their own participation and the promise of a better future for their children. For all of our problems as a nation, and the fears that ensued, a new and dynamic civic energy stirred.

It was a delightful discovery, blemished by only one great flaw – there was no place for citizens nationally to find their place together. Many Canadians continued to fight old partisan fights that merely carried the sins of the past into our difficulties of the present. We need to put that aside and find a place of our own. It could be in our communities or in our dealings with one another, but it must be expansively created before the pure democratic spirit is diminished to the point of hopelessness. We require literal and philosophical places where we can engage in openness and a willingness to learn as opposed to entrenchment and this endless compulsion to lecture.

So here I am, back in my community five years later, where it began and where I first cut my teeth on local life and respect for my fellow citizens. When I read Tom Clark’s piece yesterday about how terrible Question Period had become, I didn’t despair as I had when I held a ringside seat. There are many good politicians in Ottawa who can do precious little in the way of public betterment because of hyper partisanship but who witness every weekend in their home constituencies democracy struggling to re-establishment itself. The trick is to open Ottawa up to their influence and to permit our communities to lead our country once more.

For this there must be respect, always respect. Given the unfortunate display of my old friend Joe Kapp and the declining scale of civility in Ottawa, it is only through the recapturing of the public place through decency, respect and civility that we find our way forward. After five remarkable and confounding years, it is my greatest lesson.

Back From The Brink

Is it just me, or does this whole Helena Guergis saga seem increasingly macabre? Every week seems to bring out some new sordid revelation that turns this narrative into some kind of neverending story. I’ve grown increasingly disturbed at what appears to be a pack mentality swirling around the junior cabinet minister. It’s almost as if we’ve reached the point where we can no longer avert our gaze, as most civilized people would normally do.

In any story like this, things take a clear turn for the worse when we go from hearing of someone’s troubles to actually pursuing more discoveries in hopes that the person in question goes through even further shame.

I’ll be honest here and state that I believe it’s time we backed off from the Helena Guergis story – not because of what we’re discovering about her but about what we’ve seen in ourselves.  Citizens, media, political parties (including her own) – we’ve all pursued her calamities to such a degree that we now seem kind of ghoulish.  I’m reminds of Albert Einstein’s sage observation: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

It’s not as though our political state came from any position of strength or justness.  We’ve all played the game, at times to the detriment of those we are meant to be serving.  But we haven’t acted alone.  When the media itself pumps up the frenzy over a story like this, all in the supposed name of serious journalism, it substitutes fair-minded journalism for a kind of fanatical pursuit of the salacious.  Citizens, too, devour any kind of tidbit that adds to the junior minister’s despair.  It’s likely an independent observer would conclude that Canadians – politicians, media, citizens – are hardly living up to the kind of moral compassion they claim for themselves on the world’s stage.

We don’t need to know more about this story; enough has been discovered and displayed to assist us in making sound conclusions. A decent, fair-minded country knows when to look away, to quietly deal with its umbrage in a quiet and respectful manner.  This is what we believe of ourselves as Canada, and we know it.  Except in the Guergis story we have shown that we left those characteristics of decency and respectfulness somewhere in the past.  We are witnessing a woman living her worst nightmare, brought on by herself surely, but made decidedly more horrific by our endless fascination with someone going down in flames.  It is at once the best of sensationalism and worst of human decency.

Helena Guergis will face the judgment of her peers and the country, but she doesn’t merit the degree of humiliation she is experiencing at present.  By pushing her to the brink, we have ourselves come ever closer to it.  At a time when politicians, journalists and citizens are required more than ever to find a place of respectfulness and compromise for the sake of this country, our willingness to watch with eyes wide open the public disgrace of a struggling public servant and actually revel in it speaks volumes about us and the degree to which we have declined.

Like it or not, she is a woman attempting to stand by her fallen husband.  She’s a public servant who yet comes to the House of Commons each day and attempts to act with whatever degree of decorum she can muster.  She has failed and she knows it.  It’s up to Stephen Harper to know how to deal with it.  But as long as we linger over her public humiliation, the more we add to our own shame.  This is no longer a story about Helena Guergis but about us. It’s time to pull back before we become something we will surely dislike – for her sake, and for ours.

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