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opinion

If the Oct. 19 federal election were to turn on the state of Canadian democracy, the Harper Conservatives would be thumped.

They have been caught offending electoral laws, repeatedly disrespected parliamentary oversight, tried to ram through changes to the elections law, stymied legitimate requests for information, grossly and systematically used taxpayer funds to promote partisan causes through television and radio advertisements, muzzled civil servants and turned ministers into human talking points and various other offences – all of this in the context of a fierce partisanship epitomized by, but not exclusive to, such ministers past and present as Pierre Poilievre and John Baird. And of course, the tone of this was set by a prime minister.

Do Canadians fret about what has happened? Clearly many citizens do, but are they numerous enough and do they feel sufficiently passionate about their concerns to vote in massive numbers against the government? Or are we talking about a relatively small number of voters who, because they follow politics somewhat closely, are genuinely upset but who do not represent more than a minority of the electorate?

Put another way: Is the state of democracy something for Ottawa insiders, media folks, political groupies and for the "elites" whom the Conservatives delight in deriding? "Hard-working" Canadians, Conservatives might feel, care little for this sort of blather about the democratic system and instead prefer issues that count in their lives such as taxes, jobs and families. They might be right in this assessment.

If so, then what the Liberals and New Democrats are offering by way of changing laws, institutions and attitudes surrounding Canada's democracy will matter a little but not much in determining the electoral outcome. After all, these parties have been complaining about the Conservatives' attitudes and disrespect for a long time, without their criticisms proving to be electorally decisive.

Remember former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff? He went on and on about the state of democracy, but didn't find much traction. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair spent political capital for a while going cross-country demanding Senate abolition (an impossibility in the real world) without much evidence that most Canadians care.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the debilitated state of democracy is now more salient after almost four years of a majority Conservative government. Perhaps Canadians have had more time to watch what's been happening and to get sufficiently angry that more of them will vote on this set of issues.

The Liberals obviously hope so, since this week they delivered a blockbuster set of ideas, some of which rightly unwind bad Conservative ideas and practices, while others strike out in new directions.

As election planks go, this is a sturdy piece of work. Some of the ideas overlap with those presented by New Democrats; others are the Liberals' alone. These parties together or singly in a new parliament – if given the chance to exercise power – could change for the better many aspects of our battered democracy.

There is a grab-bag sense about the Liberal ideas – everything from restoring home mail delivery (price tag, please!) to requiring Supreme Court judges to be bilingual, to a 50-50 gender quota for cabinet which, when mixed with regional and ethnic considerations, will make forming one even more complicated.

But there are some big-ticket ideas, the most striking of which is not fully formed. The next election will be the last under the first-past-the-post existing system, the Liberals declare, before promising a study of alternatives by a parliamentary committee and a decision on a replacement within 18 months.

This is a very hurried timetable for something so basic that it ought to be put to the people in a referendum. In addition, a parliamentary committee is likely to be consumed with partisan wrangling and fail to reach a consensus. A commission would be better, reporting recommendations to Parliament and the country.

Opening up the government is a basic thrust of the Liberal approach. If even half of these proposals and good intentions were implemented, democracy would be better off. Remember, however, that opposition parties usually denounce the practices of their adversaries in office, only to discover upon taking power that some of those practices come in rather handy.

Still, the Liberals deserve kudos for their thinking about these issues – as do New Democrats. Time will winnow out dubious ideas since the world always seems simpler in opposition; reality will destroy or modify others. But many of these ideas are doable, helpful and even urgent.

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