Government Just Got More Remote

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My late father once met Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the UnitedStates. This would have been in the late 1920's and my father wouldhave been barely 20.

By Dad's account, while visiting the White House as a tourist, hesimply strolled up to the president and shook his hand.

Any tourist who tried to stroll up to the president today would belucky to survive. Assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, RobertKennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., along with attempts on the lives of then-president-elect Franklin Roosevelt and presidents Harry Truman,Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, put an end to casual citizen contactwith the US chief executive.

I once met Richard Nixon. The then-former vice-president wascampaigning in Oregon in what would prove a successful bid for the1968 Republican presidential nomination. I happened into a restaurantwhere Nixon was eating lunch, and a reporter who knew us both took meto his table for a brief, awkward chat.

Ten days later, Sirhan Sirhan fatally shot Robert Kennedy, acandidate for the Democratic nomination. Before dawn the followingmorning, all presidential hopefuls had Secret Service protection, andthe days of walking up to presidential candidates in restaurants wereover.

There's no arguing with these changes. North America is too big, andharbours too many flakes and outcasts willing to seek immortality byoffing earth's most powerful politicians. But something is lost whenhyperventilated security surrounds leaders, especially whenprecautions filter down to lesser offices in more intimate politicalsettings like provincial capitals and city halls.

In this respect, Nova Scotia has been an anachronism, an oasis offreedom from fear. Until 1994, anyone could walk into Province Houseunchallenged and uncredentialed. Once inside, citizens could minglefreely with the men and women who make our laws and run ourgovernment.

That exceptional openness diminished in 1994, when an uglydemonstration by construction workers, furious over a bill that wouldroll back union jurisdiction over work projects, forced the house toadjourn and left Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) shaken.

The Steen Bill was unfair and provocative, but the workers' recklessdemonstration didn't stop it, and didn't win the public to theircause. It succeeded only in restricting access to Province House, withphoto IDs for regular visitors and temporary passes for anyone elsewanting to pass though checkpoints established in the wake of thedisruption.

This month, members of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Unionstormed Province House again, albeit less threateningly than in 1994.They were ostensibly protesting a government restructuring bill, butthe event looked suspiciously like a campaign rally for NSGEUpresident Joan Jessome, facing contested re-election at a conventionthe following weekend.

Once again, disrupting the house didn't stop the bill or win anydisinterested Nova Scotians to the union's cause, but it did setSpeaker Murray Scott, a former police officer, on a quest for tightersecurity.

This week, Scott banned visitors from the first row of thelegislature gallery, and the Tory majority on the House Committee onInternal Matters voted to purchase a metal detector. Getting intoProvince House will soon be like boarding an international flight:Show photo ID and submit to a magnetic frisk.

Scott argues that if something akin to Denis Lortie's murderousrampage in the Quebec National Assembly happens in Nova Scotia, peoplewill demand to know why he didn't take precautions.

That's a serious worry for the man in charge of the Nova ScotiaLegislature. But Scott is wrong to dismiss objections to his plannedsecurity precautions as trivial or insubstantial. Each incrementalrestriction on access to the house makes MLAs more remote, and contactbetween citizens and law-makers less natural, less intimate, moreformal. As he weighs the security concerns, Scott must not ignorecompeting values.

Something precious is being lost here, and damn the self-indulgentprotesters who gave Scott the excuse to indulge the impulses of acareer cop.

The House of Assembly belongs to all Nova Scotians. That's why it's wrong-headed for the speaker to institute a ritual singing of "God Save the Queen" at the close of each session.

Scott says it's about respecting the Queen, but it feels likesomething very different. What brought this on? Have MLAs been showingany disrespect for Elizabeth II?

No. Like the smug insistence on reciting the Lord's Prayer at thestart of each day's sitting, it's a very public display of what shouldbe personal convictions, a way of isolating or embarrassing those whodon't share the Tory caucus's values.

Some MLAs don't support the monarchy. Others don't share a Christianfaith. Scott and his fellow Tories would force such dissenters tosubmit to public rituals of beliefs they don't hold, or make a publicdisplay of their difference.

The Hamm goverenment has done some good things. But with gratuitousgestures like these, it reveals an ugly face.

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