Only 54 per cent of Canadians voted in the 2008 federal election. According to a report published by the Conference Board of Canada, this places us 16th in a group of 17 “peer” countries. In 17th place was Switzerland, where devolution and an ongoing system of referenda have reduced the importance of the federal government, so you might say that among our real peers, we were dead last.
It’s not that we’re the worst of a bad lot, either. Our closest rivals, the US and the UK each had a turnout of 58 per cent, but other countries did much better. Eighty-six per cent of Belgians showed up at the polls in their last election, as did 83 per cent of Australians, where it is a criminal offence not to put in an appearance at the polls (you can sign in and leave without voting if you choose).
Stephen Harper was elected prime minister by 37 per cent of voters in the 2008 federal election. With only 54 per cent of eligible voters turning out, that’s about one in five adult citizens who actually voted Conservative. How is this possible?
It’s not that old voters are giving up. Citizens in the 18-24 demographic are by far the least likely to turn up at the polls, and their extremely low turnout skews the figures. Unless we make changes in the way we do politics the situation can only get worse as old voters die off and are replaced by the apathetic young.
But wait, is apathy the real problem? Do young adults really not give a damn about Canada, about laws, taxes, and the social safety net, about personal freedoms, war and peace, and the future of the planet, and all the things upon which lawmakers are able to have a profound effect?
The Conference Board’s figures indicate otherwise.
Of youth surveyed, 86 per cent are concerned about low voter turnout, 73 per cent “have not been asked to participate in politics directly by a politician or party,” and 89 per cent believe that it’s “the duty of every citizen to vote,” and only 35 per cent believed that “their vote will not make a difference.”
A new picture begins to emerge, one that doesn’t support the common notion of the tuned-out youth. The vast majority of young adult Canadians believe that voting matters, but few of them vote. They believe their vote could make a difference, yet they feel disconnected from politics, and have not been approached by politicians. Instead of asking why young people don’t vote, it’s time to ask, why has nobody managed to engage with them?
The answer may lie in the attitudes of the old. We show up to vote, perhaps out of a sense of duty, but what do we say about the people we’re there to vote for. How many times have you heard it said, “They’re all the same”? Or how about this one, from CBC coverage of the British election: “They’re all in it to line their own pockets”?
Corrupt politicians bear the greatest responsibility for this attitude. Brit MPs scamming their expense accounts to pay for luxury villas and three-cocktail lunches, American senators on the take from giant corporations, a Canadian prime minister on the payroll of a German arms dealer – the list goes on and on.
Bulletin: not all politicians are created equal. For every Brian Mulroney there are a hundred hardworking honest parliamentarians who would not accept a bag of cash from a lobbyist under any circumstances. The most destructive thing anyone can say about politics is that all politicians are the same. They are not. If they were, there really would be no reason for anyone to show up at the polls.
Politicians need to work much harder to get young people, and all of us, out to the polls. The secret to political success in a country like Canada is to identify those people who care about issues like low voter turnout, but don’t vote. Find out why they don’t vote, and address their concerns. There are millions of untapped votes out there, waiting to be picked up.
But democracy is not just the job of politicians. Every citizen, or at least every citizen who gives a damn, has to work at keeping the system alive. Instead of the facile cynicism of “They’re all the same,” try following the story and criticizing the real bad apples. The solution to bad politicians is not to abandon politics, but to elect good politicians.
For those tempted to dismiss democracy as a failed system, bear in mind that it is the only thing that stands between us and oligarchy. Being governed by elected politicians ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it beats the hell out of being governed by generals or kings.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.