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jeffrey simpson

Those of you in Ontario might have seen the television advertisements; residents elsewhere in Canada should beware that something similar might be coming to you.

The ad begins with the sun rising. In the distance a solitary figure runs toward the camera. The person's outline remains somewhat blurry until a female voice croons that she is a grandmother and a mother who cares about the future.

Now, the figure comes into full view. Lo and behold, it's Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne with a script of clichés about caring for her province, investing in infrastructure and doing other great things for her province.

The camera follows the Premier as she runs past. A closing cutline appears explaining that this ad was paid for by the Liberal Party of Ontario. The permanent election campaign has come to Ontario, as it did when Stephen Harper's Conservatives arrived in Ottawa nine years ago.

The Ontario Liberals were elected fewer than 14 months ago, yet here they are, like the federal Conservatives, advertising all the time. Apparently, success breeds imitation.

Which raises the question, perhaps to be debated during the federal election, and possibly decided thereafter: How many changes to and assaults on democratic institutions and practices under the Harper Conservatives might outlive their time in office?

Will parties in power, such as the Harper Conservatives and Ontario Liberals, everywhere decide that they must run political advertisements throughout their time in office? Will those with enough money try to frame leaders of the opposition with attack ads?

Will parties in power emulate the Harper Conservatives and spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money extolling the putative virtues of their policies? There is a law against this in Ontario, but the Ontario Liberals are suggesting weakening the law. Will they?

Will parties in power bundle extraneous pieces of legislation in one omnibus bill, thereby making parliamentary scrutiny almost impossible? Will parties in power take a cue from the Harper Conservatives and make access to information difficult, gag civil servants at home and diplomats abroad, attack independent officials (such as the Chief Electoral Officer), unilaterally change the laws under which elections are held, stiff-arm the media at every opportunity, engage in electoral practices that bend or break the law as some Conservatives have done in each election, mislead Parliament about spending (as reported by the Auditor-General), use taxpayers' money to staff a five-person film crew to produce twice-weekly shows (24 Seven) about the leader and government, change the labels from the Government of Canada to the (name of the leader) government, pass a fixed-election-date law, then ignore it once and the second time call the longest election campaign in a century to benefit from greater financial resources? And so forth.

Other governments would surely be tempted to use at least some of these changes to institutions or attitudes to further their re-election chances. After all, although the Harper Conservatives have been criticized for all of these changes, and more, the critiques have had no effect whatsoever on their core vote that remains as wedded to them as ever.

Most Canadians do not pay attention to politics or government unless something directly affects them – as in cheques arriving in the mail from Ottawa or the loss of postal service. What goes on in Ottawa, what happens to political institutions, what respect or lack thereof that governments have for practices, mores and habits of democracy, are not of much concern to many citizens, who are going about getting on with the business of their lives and families.

We are now so cynical about political behaviour that it is easy simply to assume that parties with power will do what suits them to retain or attain it. Opposition parties that promised to "do politics differently" made hay with their supporters but not many others. They seldom got elected on such nostrums.

The Reform Party years ago was going to "do politics differently" and, in a modest way the party tried. Some years later, those democratic instincts of the Reform Party evaporated when it morphed into the Conservative Party of today.

The Conservatives have become the party of power. They wield it to their advantage. They have been successful, and success breeds imitators such as the running premier.

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