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NDP leader hopefuls have made changes to our democratic system part of their platforms, and it's become an electoral issue. In a national election where three parties with a reasonable chance of power compete, and a range of other issues balance out in close ridings, electoral reform could play a decisive role.

The NDP leadership race is heating up and the most interesting development to me is that there seems to be a competition growing for who can be the most concerned about the sorry state of our democracy and the most committed to fixing it.

Take Peggy Nash, her website has a document devoted to electoral reform with the following fascinating statement (thanks to Aaron Wherry for pointing it out).

"Nash's plan calls for moving proportional representation beyond the platform to a campaign & legislative priority by making it a prominent, salient issue within public and political discourse; collaborating with like-minded organizations already working on this issue; cooperating with parties that support proportional representation to further raise awareness and public support; and inspiring non-voters to become engaged.

She will establish a Royal Commission on Electoral Reform to make specific recommendations on which system (or combination of systems) is best suited for Canada as well as the most effective legislative process to implement the changes."

The wording used here is important: no particular electoral reform is committed to exactly, except one that is more proportional and fair. Her document also mentions exploring "the most effective legislative process to implement the changes." This is a big deal when most politicians who bother to support electoral reform obsess about which system should be chosen and automatically assume a simple referendum will settle the question.

After repeated demonstrations of how ineffective referenda with simple questions on complex issues can be in Ontario, B.C., and Britain, there has been a lot of debate in the electoral reform community about whether a single referendum is really the right approach.

Mandate for reform could be derived from a clear election platform of the winning party or alternatively as a multiple stage education and referendum process as was carried out in New Zealand.

However, the best part of this situation is not even the fact that electoral reform is being discussed with such seriousness by possible party leaders. The best part is that by emphasizing cooperation with other parties, Nash is clearly making an attempt to grab Nathan Cullen's second round choices.

When politicians are fighting over who best addresses an issue, rather than dismissing it, it must be resonating somewhere. Cullen has raised the idea of cooperating strategically during the next election with other parties to defeat the Conservatives as well as strongly committing to electoral reform. If Cullen is eliminated during counting of votes during the party convention then the votes from his supporters would go their next choice on the ballot. Nash wants to get those votes. Her strongly phrased policy will speak to many of his reform-minded supporters who joined the NDP party specifically to help win.

This is exactly why petitions and membership drives are important. LeadNow's Cooperate for Canada petition and it's all-party membership drive as well as FairVote Canada's "Declaration of Voter Rights," let politicians know that some voters really do care about these issues. Nash's reference to "like-minded organizations already working on this issue" surely is targeted at organizations such as these. The message: If enough people care and get involved they can sway candidates running for leadership, which can sway party policy and entire elections.

So what does this mean, if anything, for the recovering Liberal Party? Even before the Orange Crush of the last election I've been saying that the Liberals had a chance to reinvent themselves and convince Canadian voters they wanted to change the system. That chance was to get 100 per cent behind a long term electoral reform process.

The Liberal Party have yet to take my advice and their delayed leadership process will make it hard for them to do it now, even if they were listening. If the competition on this issue within the NDP is any indicator, the NDP could well be making electoral reform a major party plank in the next election.

By then, it won't be a matter of the Liberals distinguishing themselves by embracing electoral reform, it will be a matter of playing catch-up to avoid the spectacle of a clear line: the majority of Canadians, NDP and the Green party on one side, and the Liberals and Conservatives on the other.

Politicians from all parties need to be wary of the following line of the thinking: "voters do not rank electoral reform ahead of health care, education, taxes, and the environment. Thus, it is not an important issue." This is illogical. All that matters in an election is whether an issue will be decisive in changing a voter choice from one candidate to another.

All other things being equal, or at least balancing out, many voters would prefer a party that openly recognizes the obvious flaws in our current system and makes reasonable, non-partisan plans to fix it. Consider that in past elections the only national party that consistently spoke about electoral reform was the Green Party, hardly an equal choice for most voters.

Thus, in a national election where three parties with a reasonable chance of power compete, and a range of other issues balance out in close ridings, electoral reform could play a decisive role in the outcome even though it likely isn't in the soundbite-friendly top five issues people would list when asked about their greatest concerns in a survey.

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