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lawrence martin

A year ago, when the New Democratic Party won 103 seats to become the Official Opposition for the first time, there was a suspicion among many, myself included, that this was something ephemeral, an accident of history, and that the old order would soon be restored. The Liberals had been the first- or second-place party for nearly 150 years. Surely the public hadn't permanently turned on them.

Then Jack Layton died. The NDP's surge had been largely attributed to his popularity, not any substantive new party policies. But now he was gone and an unknown interim leader was in place. For the Liberals, meanwhile, Bob Rae was putting on a show, winning the headlines, holding a successful party convention and dominating the opposition side of the House of Commons.

They were all bad tidings for the orange wave. But any anticipated big slide hasn't happened. In the year since the election, the New Democrats, on the contrary, have gathered strength. They've maintained and, in some polls, increased their lead on the Liberals. And they've moved closer to the governing Conservatives, who've lost some ground.

Of course, one year does not a lasting pattern make. The Dippers, who had a Northern Ontario MP resign Monday over their support of the gun registry, could still fade, but it's less likely, especially as they're outfitted with a new leader who is popular in Quebec and who has a moderate reputation.

Having achieved and solidified their new standing, what do they do now? With their repositioning, will they attempt landmark change, or will it be politics as usual?

The likelihood is that not much will change, that the apoplexies of the left and right will be predictably on parade. As a cynical public looks wearily on, we'll probably see Thomas Mulcair repeatedly hammering away on the economy, although that issue, a Tory strong point, won't take him to the promised land.

He has a better chance of scoring with a judicious and innovative handling of the integrity issue, the mockery of democracy that's played out by the Conservatives week after week. The F-35 duplicity, as alleged in the Auditor-General's report, is just one recent example. On a more absurdist note, a story last week revealed how the governing paranoiacs turned themselves inside out in trying to dodge a media question on – we're not kidding – the patterns of snowfall in Southern Ontario.

On another issue relating to secrecy, a National Post columnist wrote: "The Tories have treated Canadians like fools – and we have obliged them by not kicking up an undue fuss." Strong words and, coming from the right, they suggest that the issue of ethical corruption is one that can cut across party lines.

On that issue, opposition parties and some journalists have kicked up a fuss. But what's clear is that, if the Prime Minister and his party are to pay a price for abuse of the democratic process, more than protestations of that kind are required.

The New Democrats need to show Canadians a new way, something at which the Liberals failed. Mr. Mulcair needs a far-reaching plan to reshape the way Ottawa works. A "restore democracy" charter that curbs absolute prime ministerial power, that clearly sets out checks and balances, that returns credibility to the committee system, that removes the Kremlin-like muzzle on government communications, that gives the Speaker new powers to end the Question Period farce, that limits patronage, and so on.

It's a complex issue, one that can't be left to a shadow cabinet critic, one that requires a non-partisan task force and public hearings. Mr. Mulcair would do well to get that kind of process under way. With the robo-calls probe, the F-35 entanglements and other ethics controversies, he has much ammunition at his disposal. The way he uses it will tell us much about him and the new Official Opposition.