The Great Renewal in Ottawa

These are days of great potential in Canadian politics.

For the past decade, if not longer, there have been consistent complaints of decline in Canada’s leadership. Democracy and democratic institutions have eroded, and the electorate has become increasingly cynical of, and alienated from, its government.

But times are changing. Today, the major parties are entering periods of renewal and revival, casting off the heavy weights of the past and focusing on more realistic goals and forward-looking ideas.

After many years of minority governments and scandal, Ottawa finally has a majority government that, for all its faults, is giving everyone a little breathing room. Without the constant specter of a looming election, parties can focus more on internal matters—from simpler issues such as fundraising, to more complex concerns such as, in some cases, the very foundation of their existence.

For the NDP, this period presents a time to reflect on the party’s direction. By far the biggest, most immediate challenge is to replace their late leader Jack Layton. On March 24, 2012, more than 100,000 registered party members will vote on a new leader. There is no shortage of choice. The eight candidates include two high profile female MPs, a well-known Cree leader from Quebec and a multitude of other talented party members. All are intelligent, well-spoken individuals and, with the exception of Nova Scotia’s Robert Chisolm, are relatively competent in both official languages—a key selling point, considering the important role Quebec played in helping the New Democrats rise to become the Official Opposition this year.

The leadership race is providing the NDP with the opportunity to examine policies and—they hope—to convince Canadians that they are the right party to replace Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the next federal election. They are working hard to position themselves as a credible, competent body, with a focus on modernizing Canada and increasing quality of life and economic opportunity for everyone. Given that the economy is the topic on everyone’s lips these days, it was chosen as the focus of the first NDP leadership debate building up to the party’s 2012 vote. There will be five more debates before voters cast their ballots, and hopefully we will hear many more positive and inclusive ideas from candidates as to the direction the party will take if it wins the next federal election.

Further down the opposition aisle, the still-wounded Liberal party is beginning a political renewal of its own. The third party in the House has gotten a lot of news coverage for its attempts to restore the image and status of a party that so many Canadians once trusted, and their initial steps seem to be working. Several polls show the Liberals climbing higher in public opinion—particularly in voter-rich Ontario, where some polls now show them in a tie with the Conservatives. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae is leading the charge by focusing on the missteps of the Conservatives and positioning the Liberals as a sensible alternative to Stephen Harper’s heavy-handed team. Their approach, which is to foster debate and open dialogue between the party and the Canadians it courts, is very forward-thinking.

The opposing parties are not alone in their efforts to effect change. Even the governing Conservatives are showing signs of moving forward and delivering on promise. Although many of Stephen Harper’s recent moves have proved controversial, they have not been surprising. Long-standing pledges, such as dismantling the long-gun registry and enacting new crime legislation, are moving rapidly through the House.

Interestingly, these bellicose moves are indeed helping fuel debate on the state of democracy in Canada. The criticism of the bills—and the use of the parliamentary tools, such as closure, used to pass them with little debate—are feeding into the opposition party’s dialogue about restoring and renewing the Canadian institutions that they feel have degraded under the Conservatives since 2006. The government’s majority status means that these bills will pass regardless of opposition and, in several cases, despite public discomfort. At the same time, they are providing opportunities for discussion about how much power a government, even when given a majority, should have and who or what should keep that power in check.

Although we are several years away from an election, and a lot can—and will—happen in the interim, it is refreshing to see parties cool the perennially revved up election machines and shift their focus instead to policy and the direction the country is going. For the time being, Stephen Harper can rest comfortably knowing that his party and its popularity are secure amongst Canadians. However, if the growing chatter of renewal and increased engagement from the other parties continues, the Prime Minister may find himself increasingly unable to convince Canadians that he and his party are the best choice for their future.

Perhaps another party, and a new Canadian government, is sowing the seeds of its rise before our very eyes.

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