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The Peace tower is seen through the main gate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Peace tower is seen through the main gate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

Five reasons Ottawa is turning you off Add to ...

In almost every federal election since 1963, when 79.2 per cent of Canadians cast a ballot, the popular vote has declined. In 2008, it reached a nadir of 58.8 per cent. Canadians seem more distanced from their federal government than at any time in living memory. While separatism may be on the wane in Quebec, apathy could well be the biggest threat to national unity. What's causing it? And what do we do about it? Five reasons stand out for what's wrong with Parliament, and why you should care about fixing it.

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1. Ottawa's irrelevant

In 1995, Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin confronted a crippling federal deficit. To fight it, he cut transfer payments to the provinces. The provinces howled, but then eventually realized that if Ottawa didn't send as much money, then it also didn't have as much say. From that time on, responsibility for health care, education, welfare, roads, housing - just about anything that matters in day-to-day life - has been mostly a provincial or municipal affair. People don't watch what goes on in Ottawa because the federal government doesn't do anything any more.

But: Actually, the federal government does plenty, and could do more.

When the financial crisis hit in autumn of 2008, it wasn't to Queen's Park or Edmonton that voters turned their eyes. The federal government still holds all the big fiscal levers. It takes most of your tax money, it looks after your pensions (though the provinces have a say), it manages inflation and interest rates (through the Bank of Canada). Ottawa and the provinces are about to enter protracted negotiations over health care and equalization because the federal government is still a major player in funding them.

Your federal government does other things. Only Ottawa can send you to war. It's also solely responsible for the Criminal Code. It sets immigration policy and negotiates trade treaties. It decides how big your phone and Internet bill will be, and how fast you can surf, because it regulates telecommunications. It permits dairy quotas. It decides whether you can take liquids or gels on an airplane.

Ottawa might act behind the scenes, sometimes, but it is still the most important government in your life. If it wasn't there, you'd notice. And its role is evolving.

The Conservative government has proposed a national securities regulator. What if all regulation was transferred up to the federal level, replacing the patchwork of provincial regimes? What if it acted firmly to prohibit interprovincial trade barriers? What if one common standard applied to licensing doctors and teachers? There's more our federal government could do for us, if we let it.

2. Ottawa is old, white and male

Indeed it is. The millennial generation - those who came of age in the past decade or so - vote less than anyone else. In the 2008 election, the turnout among voters under 25 was less than 40 per cent. For those 25 to 34, it was 48 per cent.

In part that's because younger people don't see themselves reflected in their political leadership.

Three of the four federal leaders are in their 60s. (Stephen Harper is 51.) And Parliament is still an old boys' club. Women and members of visible minorities are seriously underrepresented in the House of Commons.

But: That can change.

In the 2008 U.S. elections, voters under 30 cast 18 per cent of ballots, helping to make Barack Obama President. There is a powerful argument in favour of generational change at the federal level in Canada as well.

The best way to effect that change is for voters to make their voices heard and feared. A House of Commons with younger leaders might pay more attention to fighting global warming, a key concern among younger voters. If there were more visible-minority MPs, there might also be more resources for immigrant language and skills training, and for getting professionals with degrees from offshore certified. A House with more women might get serious about providing child-care resources in the workplace.

These and other issues will get the attention they deserve only when Parliament reflects the country as it is, rather than as it used to be.

3. Parliament ignores the big cities

That's for sure. Because of constitutional provisions, legislation and entrenched interests, small provinces are seriously overrepresented in the House while the big provinces with the big cities, other than Quebec, are underrepresented.

Other rules allow rural seats in each province to contain far fewer people than urban seats. Some ridings in cities such as Vancouver have almost four times as many voters as ridings in Prince Edward Island. Because most immigrants today come from places other than Europe, and because they tend to congregate in large cities, the system actively discriminates against members of visible minorities by making their votes count less. It's not intentional, politicians say, but the longer the imbalance continues, the more intentional it becomes.

But: The House can be fixed, and almost was.

The Conservatives introduced legislation in 2010 that would have rebalanced the House of Commons by adding seats in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, giving them proper representation. The new ridings would have been carved out of urban centres to give voters there a greater say. But rural MPs in all three national parties got up on their hind legs and protested. The Conservatives let the bill die, and the opposition was happy to see it go. We need a powerful, urban, grassroots campaign that would compel party leaders to embrace riding reform and end the racist and anti-urban bias in the House of Commons.

4. Nothing gets done

As long as the Bloc Québécois continues to take about 50 of Quebec's 75 seats, election after election, a national political party has to take about two-thirds of the seats in the rest of the country to form a majority government, a daunting challenge. The result has been seven years of minority government, with current polls suggesting that nothing will change after the next vote. Important but contentious legislation languishes for lack of support from opposition parties.

But: It's not as bad as it looks.

Requiring consensus ensures that bad important legislation is less likely to get passed, as well as good. Minority parliaments have prosecuted the war in Afghanistan, and last week sent the navy and air force to Libya. The refugee law has been reformed, health-care and equalization accords negotiated, trade treaties signed and implemented, a recession successfully fought, taxes both raised and lowered.

If no party obtains a majority over the next couple of elections, popular will could see the voting system reformed. Proportional representation could turn unstable minority governments into stable coalitions. And either the Conservatives or the Liberals could actually win a majority government, giving Canadians a fresh chance to assess how well they work.

5. Hyperpartisanship turns people off

There's no question that federal politics has become nasty. Question Period is a zoo, attack ads get fiercer with each election and governments increasingly abuse what should be non-partisan services, such as advertising, for blatantly partisan ends. (The Conservatives are egregious sinners, but the Liberals did it too.)

But: There are fixes.

Conservative MP Michael Chong introduced a private member's bill that would have enforced greater civility at Question Period, but it died on the order paper. Some provinces have moved to create arm's-length panels to vet government advertising. A majority government, if it ever arrives, would lower the political temperature, at least in the years before an election.

Don't forget:

Canada remains a blessed country, with a strong economy, a stable banking system, prudent fiscal management (at least at the federal level), relatively low unemployment, comprehensive and well-funded social programs, a thriving cultural scene and the world's most enlightened and successful immigration policy. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have helped get us here. As dysfunctional and out of touch as Ottawa might seem, people in most countries can only wish that their leaders would act as responsibly as ours have. But if you want change in Ottawa, there's only one way to make it happen. Vote.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau chief.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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