On October 15, 2015, LYAC councillors and staff sat down to talk about the recent federal election. Together, we talked about the way the different parties ran their campaigns, how our own social circles reacted, and identified some of the problems with voter engagement efforts and tried to think of ways to overcome these challenges.
Who Should Read This?
- People who voted, and people who didn’t
- People interested in youth perspectives on political engagement
- People interested in political reform
- People with an interest in socio-political values
We started out the conversation by sharing our reactions to the campaign, as well as talking about how our friends and families responded. Many of us were pleasantly surprised by how engaged our circles were, even when we were surprised or frustrated by their responses. Some of us had friends who said they’d vote, but we’re not always sure how invested people were. Others had friends who were very engaged, but turned off by how negative the campaigns were.
While the narratives are the election as a whole were often about change and the opportunities that could come from a change in government, the way all of this was communicated came across as overly negative to most of us. The attack ads were patronizing, with overly simplified information that treated viewers as though they were dumb. While attack ads can correlate to lower voter turnout, this wasn’t the case this time. Someone pointed out that there really only seemed to be two sides, Harper and everyone else, and they felt like the content of the ads didn’t really matter in light of that. Others felt that politicians are supposed to be role models; when they attack each other, it does affect the way people interact with their government and even their perceptions of each other. We’d like to see a more positive system, where politicians focus on what they bring to the table rather than what the other party lacks. Instead of focusing on winning, parties should treat each other with respect and the understanding that everyone is supposed to be there to make the country a better place.
Negativity wasn’t just in the way parties engaged with one another, it was also explicit in the some of the issues that parties focused on. The niqab debate highlighted a divisive approach to politics that showed us that there may be fewer social liberals than we thought. There was also a dedicated infrastructure, through LeadNow, aimed to stop the Conservative party from forming the government. Whatever our own political leanings, this approach to voting has its own pitfalls and shifts the focus from electing the best people for the job to electing people who have the best chance of defeating someone else.
What Was Missing
While conversations about the economy, immigration and refugees, and ISIS dominated much of the campaign narrative, there were some topics that, in our eyes, were noticeable absent. Early on, there was some conversation about affordable or universal daycare, but that quickly disappeared. In addition, there wasn’t as much talk about the environment as we might have expected, and the Keystone Pipeline only really came up in the first debate. After that, Elizabeth May was excluded from further debates and no other leader raised the topic. Arctic sovereignty was also much less prominent than it has been in the past, outside of an obligatory stop on the campaign trail.
Finally, missing Indigenous women were rarely talked about, comparatively speaking, except as a way of attacking the Conservative efforts, or lack thereof, to meaningfully respond to the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We’re not confident that calls for an inquest were genuine, and we’re reserving judgement on how meaningful such an inquest would be in generating solutions and commitments to change. An inquest might be the best response we have right now, but it’s not good enough.
When we talked about why these issues and challenges and injustices aren’t made part of the conversation, we identified a couple of reasons. The first is that complexity and nuance don’t play well as part of a campaign. They don’t play well because politicians haven’t always got answers and need time to talk things through with people who know more about the topic, and because campaigns required black and white responses. If these black and white responses can be delivered in under 30 seconds, so much the better. Campaigns are rarely treated as the time to solve problems or have a real national conversation about values and decision making processes. We thought that rather than focusing on decisions that have already been made, we’d like to see political leaders help us understand how they will make decisions in the future.
This focus on social and cultural values is another part of the reason so much of this was absent from the campaign: we’ve been trained for years to ignore anything that doesn’t relate to the economy. Social justice (or injustice), without an explicit connection to the economy, all too frequently ends up on the back burner, even though it is of vital importance to the way people live their lives every single day.
We followed up our conversation about the narratives of the campaign by looking at the way citizens and politicians engage with one another. We noted that social media is often pushed as a way to engage with young people, but it really only works for people who are already interested. Reaching uninterested young people isn’t necessarily important to politicians, because young people often don’t vote. But is voting the only thing that gives people political value? There are plenty of people who can’t vote, but they still live here, are still citizens, and still matter. And if they matter, so do people who can vote but don’t. There is more than one way to be politically engaged, and voting once every four years should not define your value.
We thought about ways that candidates can better engage young people, even those who are not old enough to vote. These are some of the ideas we came up with:
- Attitude when addressing young people on Twitter (or social media in general): often the focus seems to be on making sure young people know that a candidate exists, rather than tapping in to conversations people are already having about issues that matter to them
- Address issues that young people care about: young people may not be invested in the campaign topics, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that we care about. Instead of trying to make us care about the things candidates are talking about, candidates could engage with us about things we care about.
- Candidates could go to schools in a non-partisan manner to explain what politics is and why it matters, especially before people have reached the voting age.
Engagement, Governance and Party Politics
In many election campaigns, there is a lot of energy spent on getting people out to vote and on addressing the idea that votes don’t matter. We thought that maybe it’s selfish to think that vote only matters if you vote for the winning party. Each vote could matter more than it matters now, but part of living in democracy is that vote can’t matter all the time the way we want it to matter.
On the other hand, why do we assign such virtue to politics? Why is it so important that we should be involved and engaged in politics? Some of us thought that there is a sense of superiority that we get from voting, a sense satisfaction in having done the “right” thing. Others felt that things are happening, and who we vote for matters. One person argued for an evolutionary approach: we need a system of governance; the less engagement we have, the closer we get to a catastrophic event, so pushing people to engage is some kind of survival mechanism.
None of this really tells us why we need to make young people care about politics, why we can’t just accept that they care about other things, things that could be considered political if we cared to consider them that way. Voting is not the first step in getting people politically involved; there are so many other ways to get there, and young people are typically more engaged than their older counterparts in community groups, protests, rallies, volunteering, etc.
The emphasis placed on voter turnout and political participation, and our conversation about why it does or doesn’t matter, led us to consider what it means to govern. If elections (and therefore voter turnout) are about who wins a mandate to govern, what does this really mean? For us, governance is about doing what is best for the country, and too often party politics seems to get in the way. Individuals might agree on an issue, but if their parties do not, their agreement doesn’t matter. Instead of focusing on parties, elections should be a huge conversation about the way we want our country to look and how we get there.
One way to minimize the effects of party politics on the work of governance is to change the electoral system, perhaps to a proportional representation system instead of first past the post. We talked about getting rid of parties altogether, but we weren’t sure how that could work. There really isn’t anything to stop people from organizing along ideological line or pooling resources, which is the basis for the party system. What we’d like to see are party reforms that mitigate some of the downsides of party politics.
One of the big, galvanizing stories from our conversation came from people who told us about their personal conflict with voting. They really felt like the moral value placed on casting a vote was misplaced, and that there are so many other, often more long term and meaningful, ways to participate and that the focus on voting takes away from some of these. They said that casting a vote once every four years isn’t the same as being engaged, and yet it seems to be the most important metric for engagement, especially when it comes to young people.
- How can we measure and make meaningful avenues of political participation and engagement other than voting?
- What kind of party reforms would be necessary to eliminate some of the competitive, win-lose politics we see in both campaigns and in Parliament?
I rewrote this section half a dozen times because I have Strong Feelings about citizen engagement and party politics. I once spent a week trying to write six pages of my thesis, and an argument about what it means to be an engaged citizen prompted me to write a four page rant in under an hour (still had writer’s block on that thesis, though). Boiled down, I guess my main argument is that everyone cares about something, and no one has to care about everything. When we talk about engagement, I think there’s a tendency to look to voter turnout as a measurement tool because it’s hard to find a way to measure caring and all the forms it can take. This is where people, and not only young people, end up stuck: we care about things, and about people, but maybe our way of caring isn’t quantifiable or easily identifiable as political (even to ourselves), and so somehow we end up with this idea that it doesn’t “count”, that it isn’t valuable. This doesn’t mean that we should stop caring about things or that we should only care about the kinds of things that get talked about on election campaigns, it means that there’s a problem with the way that engagement is understood and measured.
Things We Still Need to Learn
- Now that some time has passed, how have our expectations compared with what has happened? Are we still missing pieces from our national conversation, and if so, which ones? Are the pieces missing in different ways?
- Has voter engagement translated into ongoing political engagement? How could we measure this, and is it the same or different when compared to past elections?