iPolitics by Jane Hilderman 15 December 2011
Reflecting on the images coming out of Egypt recently — where millions waited hours to cast their ballots — it is tempting to lament Canadians’ comparable political apathy. The year 2011 has demonstrated, time and time again, that our politics — federally and provincially — has a participation problem that is getting worse. It is now routine to expect, in the wake of any election, a news story on the often sorry state of turnout. Questions of democratic legitimacy are inevitably raised and non-voters are implored to see the error of their ways.
Yet new research by Samara, a charitable think tank, suggests the ballot box isn’t the place to focus a conversation about citizens’ political engagement. By the time the writ drops, most have already decided if their participation is worthwhile. This reasoning is more complex than can be explained by apathy, disinterest or ignorance, the commonly accepted reasons for non-voting.
Instead, it is people’s day-to-day lived experiences with government that have taught them engagement is futile. As one Canadian said, reflecting on his attempt to interact with government, “you might as well talk to a wall.”
Most striking across these very diverse focus groups, which included lower income Canadians, less educated youth, urban Aboriginal peoples, women, rural and new Canadians, is a shared sense that they are outsiders within their own political system given how powerless they feel.
As outsiders, disengaged participants firmly believed it is not them who hold sway — even on the issues that affect them directly. Most indicated that the experience of trying to have concerns addressed by politicians and public servants left them frustrated and disappointed.
In response, many people learn to feel that, “it does not matter what I say or do.” This doesn’t mean that they don’t know what is going on in politics, or that they no longer care. However, such lived experiences lead to a de-prioritization of politics from their lives. “Why should I care for the system if it doesn’t care for me?” asked one Canadian.
In short, when it is time to go to the ballot box, it’s already too late for more and more Canadians. Making voting more convenient – longer advance polling hours, or the promise of electronic voting may have marginal benefit, but it will not overcome what disengaged Canadians feel is a reasoned response on their part. The good news is that while they feel voiceless and frustrated, they are not looking for a wholesale change in our political institutions. They simply want those institutions to perform their essential functions in an accountable and effective manner.
First, navigating government shouldn’t feel like a daunting struggle. Better quality public service can be one starting point. Here, we can take inspiration from Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi who advised his city’s front-line public servants to “serve the people, not the by-law.” This approach contrasts with what several people described being unhelpfully told to “go there” as government offices bounced their queries around while, “being on the phone all day.”
Second, our political parties, who are a fundamental bridge between citizens and their government, also need to be more open and inclusive. In theory, this shouldn’t be a tough sell. Non-voters outnumber the voters for any one party both federally and provincially. They should be viewed as the richest source of new support for parties, yet most strategies continue to focus on luring assured voters away from another party—thereby improving their support while simultaneously reducing their competition’s numbers. Creative thinking is required on how to re-engage many Canadians and tap their potential votes.
Finally, politically disengaged citizens, we heard, want greater honesty from their political leaders. They understand mistakes happen but they want leaders who own up and are willing to be held accountable for them. If there was one dominant theme to the focus groups, it is that government needs to work for citizens.
All in all, these observations may sound pretty intuitive. Yet what seems simple can easily be lost in a flurry of attention on voter turnout alone. The swelling ranks of citizens who feel outside their own political system indicates there is significant room for improvement. It shouldn’t take a revolution in Canada to get people feeling like they have a stake in their political system. But that means starting now — and not waiting to be reminded at the next election.
Jane Hilderman is a research analyst at Samara, a charitable think tank, based in Toronto. She is a co-author of Samara’s report, “The Real Outsiders: Politically Disengaged Views on Politics and Democracy”. Samara works to strengthen Canadian democracy through research and educational outreach initiatives.