Bread and Circuses

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The last few days before Parliament rises for Christmas brings a flurry of voting and an on-going litany of accusations, spin-doctoring, insults, avoidance. You know immediately when the last day arrives because suddenly everyone is filled with the holiday spirit, sending well-wishes across the aisle as if the past four months of bickering wasn’t real.

And to some extent it wasn’t. My years on Parliament Hill — on the Senate side it is true — has shown the place up for what it is. A giant circus tent where a show is put on for the public. Meanwhile in the trailers and tents off to the side of the big-top (if I may stretch a metaphor), work gets done in the national interest, or at least someone’s version of the national interest. For the most part it occurs in an atmosphere of congeniality or at least tolerance.

The nastiness is for show — or at least it used to be that way. I’ve only been on the Hill since 2002 so I can’t speak of the good old days when there were actually a sense of decorum and common purpose, when strong bonds of friendship were formed across party lines. But I can tell you that if 2002 was a step down form cooperation and collegiality, the last 12 years has seen an ever increasing decline.

It is perhaps the continuous campaign mentality — first adopted by the Harper Conservatives but since taken up by the other parties too. When you are constantly trying to beat the other parties down (while trying to outdo them in scattering largesse to the masses) it is impossible to continue to treat them with respect.

The on-going centralization of power in the PMO (begun 40 years ago) and its increasing reliance on young men and women who have never done anything but politics has made things worse. Deprived of meaningful work to do, back benchers adopt the role of ranting partisans — it seems to be the only way to get noticed, allowing otherwise talentless gentlemen like Pierre Polievre or Peter Van Loan to rise to ministerial ranks.

Meanwhile, the public looks on in shock and awe and wonder about the value of it all. The media hardly helps — when good work is done in committees or through cooperative discussions, it gets shuffled to page four or the last story of the newscast in favour of the latest faux outrage.

Bread and circuses? Is this all we can expect from our future government? Is this what the great democratic experiment has come down to? I’m not sure though, as an eternal optimist, I do see signs of hope.

There is a growing recognition that the status quo isn’t acceptable — what’s more that it isn’t healthy. One thing that I take from the US Senate report on the outrageous behavior of the CIA is that some — if not all —of these honourable gentlemen and ladies have realized: Can we really be defending freedom, liberty and morality when we resort to loathsome techniques of monsters and tyrants?

Maybe as the holidays approach we should all put peace, life, order, liberty, good government and the pursuit of happiness on our wish list.

But that’s ten minutes.

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