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Much has been written about how Canadians no longer vote, are not interested in politics and have general disdain for politicians of all stripes. Laziness, apathy, the Internet and the less-than-stellar performance of politicians themselves are often held responsible for this situation. However, little attention has been given to one old-fashioned institution that used to play a major role in connecting people and politics: the political party.

The late Canadian historian William Stewart Wallace once argued that we could trace the origins of Canadian political parties back to 1608, when a group of men got together to plot the murder of Samuel de Champlain to protest France's claim over the new settlement in North America.

Since then, groups of like-minded Canadians with less malevolent intentions have organized themselves into associations called "parties" to try to have an impact on their governments and the country's direction – through recruiting candidates for public office, generating platform (policy) proposals, supporting and deposing leaders, organizing public events, communicating with voters, raising funds and mobilizing thousands of volunteers to conduct election campaigns and "get out the vote."

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These tasks – someone must perform them – are vitally important to the functioning of democracy. Nevertheless, just 2 per cent of Canadians feel compelled to join political parties or independent campaign organizations at any given time.

To understand why this is so, the Manning Foundation conducted a national public-opinion poll in December on attitudes toward political parties generally and public interest in improving their credibility and performance. The results are both disturbing and instructive.

Our poll shows that 94 per cent of Canadians have little or no idea what political parties actually do outside of election campaigns. For example, most voters appear to have little or no idea of how those candidate names got on the election ballot or the role of political parties in getting those names there.

This lack of familiarity, however, does not prevent almost 70 per cent of Canadians from having a negative impression of parties. In other words, Canadians don't know much about parties but still heartily dislike them. Not surprisingly, when asked to suggest one change political parties could introduce to make themselves more relevant and attractive, 45 per cent of respondents could not come up with a single suggestion.

This situation is particularly troublesome because these same Canadians, who know and care so little about political parties, were quite knowledgeable and engaged when asked about what political issues they want their elected officials to address more effectively – issues on which political parties and the candidates they bring into public life have a major influence. For example:

• Sixty-five per cent of respondents feel Canada could do a much better job in providing well-paid jobs for young Canadians;

• Fifty-eight per cent feel Canada could do a much better job of preserving the integrity of key social programs, such as old-age security and health care;

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• Fifty-five per cent feel Canada could do a much better job of finding the right balance between energy development and environmental conservation;

• Fifty-one per cent feel Canada could do a much better job in protecting the interests of vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.

To regain relevance and credibility with the public, there is obviously much work to be done by all political parties to more effectively address these issues. And on no front is such work more urgently required than on the "democracy front" itself. For example, according to our poll:

• Sixty-five per cent of respondents feel Canada could do a much better job in getting citizens more directly involved in the public-policy process and improving voter turnout;

• Sixty-two per cent feel Canada could do a much better job in making our democratic institutions more responsive to voters and in ensuring candidates for political office are better trained and better prepared for their jobs.

Political parties of all stripes and the candidates they bring into public life can have a major influence on the preparedness and ability of Parliament, legislatures and municipal councils to meet all of these challenges more effectively.

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But they need to reconnect with Canadians – not only as vote-seeking marketing machines, but also as institutions where like-minded people can share goals and ideas, contribute to public policy, reconcile conflicting interests, influence and support political activists and serve not merely partisan interests, but those of their communities and country.

Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. André Turcotte is an associate professor of communications at Carleton University.

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