The strangest item in the Liberal Party of Canada's new platform for democratic and governmental renewal is plank No. 26 of 32: "Save Home Mail Delivery." Then again, maybe it's not so hard to explain. This is, after all, an election year. The name of the game is winning votes, and this issue surely polls well with a key voting group. And so, however relevant it isn't, there Canada Post is.
The platform Justin Trudeau unveiled on Tuesday may be titled Real Change, but it has been built with more than a little timber recycled from Old Politics. And for all of that, it contains some good ideas, whose adoption would make Canada a better, and better governed, place. But mixed in are more than a few ideas that are half-baked, hastily trotted out to fend off an NDP surge, and read more like marketing slogans than considered proposals for running the country.
Let's start with what's good in the Liberal plan.
The Liberals promise more independence for government watchdogs such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer. They promise to make Question Period more relevant and useful by introducing the British practice of Prime Minister's Question Period – the PM will have to stand and answer. They promise ongoing parliamentary oversight of Canada's national security agencies – an amendment to Bill C-51, which they voted for while simultaneously promising to change if elected.
They promise that there will be more free votes in the House of Commons, though the conditions under which these will happen are unclear. (Liberal MPs will not be free on any issue touching on "the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights," which is about as vague and wide as can be.) And they'll further empower MPs by making parliamentary committees more independent of the prime minister and better funded.
Also good: a promise to repeal the "anti-democratic elements" of the Conservative government's Fair Elections Act and scrap the Citizen Voting Act, both of which make it more difficult for some citizens to vote. Sections of the Fair Elections Act limiting and muzzling Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer will also be repealed. The parties' pre-election spending, which thanks to a loophole is now unlimited, will be limited.
What's more, the Liberals promise to pass legislation preventing the government of the day from using public money to fund what are effectively political ads – a long-standing Conservative government practice. The fact that the Liberal government of Ontario is currently undoing its own legislation banning partisan government advertising, the better to compete with the federal Tories, only proves just how effective such a law can be.
The Access to Information Act will be brought into the 21st century so that almost all government data is available online, by default, rather than forcing Canadians to go through a cumbersome, ancient application process. It's an idea we've long supported. The same goes for bringing back the long-form census. Doing away with it was the equivalent of putting out the eyes of policy-makers and researchers.
And then there are the promises that don't quite cut it.
A promise that future cabinets will have an equal number of men and women is exactly one sentence long. Nice slogan. How exactly will it work?
And that marketing-slogan-as-platform is followed by this: "We will also adopt a federal government-wide open and merit-based appointments process, which will ensure gender parity and that more Indigenous Peoples and minority groups are reflected in positions of leadership." Did anyone in the party consider that the first part of that sentence sits uncomfortably with the second half? Or is this just the flip side of the Conservative Party's wedge-issue campaigning, where the goal is to put out markers and dare the other side to criticize you?
And then there's this: "Ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." The Liberals promise, if elected, to create a "national engagment process" and to remake our entire democratic system within 18 months. Will they bring in proportional representation? Ranked ballots? Mandatory voting? The Liberals promise a revolution, details to be determined.
Before jumping into the unknown, it's worth remembering that Canada is one of history's most successful political projects. This place, warts and all, is a miracle – a remarkably enduring one. It needs to work better in a million small ways, but a total overhaul of the political system is a different matter. Which may explain why, faced with referendums on changing the voting system, voters in Ontario, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia all came down against the idea. Many of Mr. Trudeau's smart, modest proposals are to be embraced. This big one? Approach with caution.