A few weeks ago I attended Question Period in the House of Commons. I knew I would be in Ottawa and I made prior arrangements with my Member of Parliament to have two tickets for the event. It was a cold, damp Ottawa afternoon when Donna, a longtime friend of mine, and I made our way unto Parliament Hill. Walking onto the Hill we had to step through concrete pylons that have been inserted between the gates that allow pedestrian access to the Hill but limit vehicular access. These were installed several years ago in response to increased need for security in our post-9/11 world. Such a thing one notices, but it does not necessarily cause unease, at least not anymore.
What did cause unease were the two security checkpoints that we had to pass through before being allowed into the viewing gallery for Question Period. The first checkpoint was the most disconcerting of all. It is situated at the entrance to the Parliament Building itself. Rather than being permitted to enter through the magnificent front stairs we had to walk to the right, under the stairs, and go through security in the basement. Only cleared personnel, Members of Parliament and the like, were permitted to use the front stairs. After we had emptied our pockets and passed through the security scanners we were allowed to retrieve our belongings and proceed up a flight of stairs to the foyer of the House. There we had to show photo identification which resulted in the release of our pre-arranged tickets to the ‘the show’.
We waited until we were permitted to go upstairs. All the while we waited we were watched over by several armed security guards. Things were beginning to get a little unnerving. Then we were ushered up a flight of stairs, again by security guards. On the second floor we were required to go through a second security check. Once again, all metal out of our pockets, jackets off, belts off… and walk through the security scanners. After gathering our personal effects again we were then asked to hang our coats and bags and were given tokens for reclaiming these afterwards. Then, finally, we were ushered into the public gallery one floor above the House of Commons and were asked to sit quietly. Throughout our time in the gallery security guards watched over us, arms crossed, unsmiling.
I was happy to be in attendance for I highly value our parliamentary tradition. Moreover, I believe that Question Period is important in our democracy for it is during Question Period that that which is often done quietly behind closed doors by the governing party is scrutinized and made public by the members of the opposition. In this way Question Period serves a legitimate and necessary function within our democracy.
Of course it is political theatre. One cannot listen and watch Question Period and not be confronted with the fact that it is theatre, especially in our media savvy age. The Members of Parliament who are within the range of the strategic television cameras sit in apt attention while their colleagues fling questions across the floor, banter back and forth, and thump their desks like adolescents trying to goad their opponents into silly mistakes. Many of those who sit off camera are more attentive to their handheld devices and laptops than to the questions being raised in the House. Yes, the theatrics of Question Period is a little hard to take and the inattention of some does tend to tarnish this parliamentary tradition.
But far more disconcerting than the theatrics of Question Period was the level and omnipresence of security personnel. In some ways the tightening of security had been matched by a decline in political civility in Canadian democracy. As security has increased and civility has decreased the public perception of political office as an honourable vocation for the commonweal has declined. This is unfortunate because, despite living in a time when the shameful conduct of a few Canadian politicians are being legitimately exposed, I still see much evidence of political office being a worthy investment of time and the use of one’s gifts.
That evidence was laid plainly before me as I sat in the gallery that afternoon. As I looked down I saw the faces of many members of Parliament who I recognized. Some have been serving the public for many years; others are relatively novices to the service. Among those who I recognized I saw many who I know have worked hard for their constituents and for the ‘greater good’. Theirs’ is a difficult work one that needs our support.
If I had one prayer for our parliamentarians it would go something like this:
May you listen to your heart and speak freely, wisely and intelligently from that place of knowing;
May you not let the concern for security shut down the quest for truth and justice upon which our society rests;
May you debate ideas with your opponents while respecting their dignity as persons;
And may you ever serve the illusive but necessary common good;
All the days that you are called to be in public office.