[I asked my friend Shannon, one of the smartest, most politically-engaged people I know, to write something about voter apathy in Canada, and she did. And she makes two excellent points that are worth reading about.]
We are neck deep in our third federal election in five years. Three federal elections in five years and yet the voter turnout in Canada continues to decrease. If we keep going at the rate we’ve been going, then this election will see a less than 40 percent voter turnout rate. That’s shameful, and prompts many countries to accuse Canadian citizens of being apathetic towards politics in our own country.
Is our poor voter turnout to be blamed on the apathy of the citizens of our nation? Our media seems to think so. But to be apathetic is to be impassive or indifferent to a situation or circumstance of emotional, physical or social life. Political apathy can suggest that the circumstances are too complicated to comprehend resulting in an appearance of indifference. If this modern (1950s) idea of apathy is the situation that is to be understood as the Canadian political personality, no avenue of information is more to blame than the media itself. We would argue that the major resource for political understanding is our media sources, regardless of them being print, electronic, visual or audio.
I am a major fan of Canadian politics; I opt to have my iPhone open to the national page of the Globe and Mail before I have my first sip of coffee everyday. My Google alerts are synched equally to follow Mr. Harper as they are to follow Katie. I refresh the CBC site enough at work that I am sure to eventually have my Internet privileges taken away. All of this is to say that I have spent a significant amount of my time following the political landscape of this country and even I was confused as to why and how our most recent collapse of government occurred.
I imagine that the majority of Canadians are still confused about how our government is even able to collapse. Or how, when a government that has lost confidence three times (prorogued or not, our government did fall)—incurring a fourth time to their record this spring—can continue to maintain power. Well, to start, terms like ‘a vote of non-confidence’, ‘prorogue’ and ‘contempt of parliament’ were not common for the decade long rule of the Liberals. In the case of prorogue, it is a term that has not surfaced for the last few decades. Finally, be proud Conservatives! No party has ever been found in contempt of parliament in the history of our country until now! So how could it be expected that the entire population would understand what is happening when some of these terms have rarely ever been used before?
The Canadian media has done a poor job of presenting this information. It is assumptive that if you choose to follow politics you will already understand the checks and balances of our political system. Rarely is enough time, money or space set aside to explain the complicated nature of our political stage. The lead up to the collapse of our government only made headlines in the final days of Parliament. Once the government fell, we were plagued with snippets of Ignatieff holding a baby and Harper buying a hot dog—if this is all it takes to run a country, then the majority of us are overqualified. Why isn’t our media doing more to explain to citizens how our government works? Pictures of the leaders holding their budgets, babies, or hot dogs is not actually uncovering a truth about our nations political prospective.
I do not believe that our population or any population is unable to comprehend the political sphere that they are situated in. It is a matter of if the material is being presented to them—this responsibility, I would argue, lies on the shoulders of our media. The parties always have and always will present their stage in its best light; the journalists are to uncover what is not being shown.
The other week the cover of Maclean’s magazine—which is often cited as a major resource of news for many Canadians—features the Russell Williams murder story. Not to devalue that story but Canada is in the middle of a major federal election. The Conservatives were found to be in Contempt of Parliament, the majority has lost their confidence and we are now discovering the Auditor General’s report regarding the G8/G20 is damning. Where is the leadership of our media? Where is the journalism? Why are we simply shown clips of candidates playing musical instruments, or kissing babies, instead of having the importance of this election spelled out to us in terms every citizen can understand?
If people decide to argue that Canadian apathy is not rooted in confusion about the political process, but rather because Canadians are indifferent to the political arena and don’t feel any candidate is a good choice, then why not explain voting in this light to the Canadian audience: instead of not voting, spoil your ballet. I was 23 years old before I found out that spoiled ballets are counted too. I argue, routinely to my colleagues, friends, anyone, that a spoiled ballet holds the same if not more weight than a vote for a party does, and always more than silence. In the 2006 and 2008 elections Canada saw voter turnouts of 14,660,352 and 13,686,146 respectively. This is roughly a 5 percent decrease in a voter turnout. Imagine all of those people had still appeared at the poles but had spoiled their ballot? The parties who lost would certainly be interested in those who had taken the time to appear but were unsatisfied with their options. Even more so: imagine if the 55 percent of those who did not appear at the polls in 2006 and 2008 arrived to spoil their ballots; certainly then the federal government would take notice. Even the aloof Mr. Harper would take note of a chance to finally get a majority government.
But I do not think Canadians are indifferent. Flash mobs have begun to pop up around the country letting the government know that students are not apathetic and they will be at the poles this May. These mobs have been showing up at both Liberal and Conservative rallies, not in support of the either party, simply letting them know they will be at the poles, so pay attention. The interest is there, it simply needs to be mobilized.
NOTE: Shannon wrote this when I asked her to, which was on April 12. Since then a lot has changed, most notably, the NDP has suddenly begun beating the Liberals at the polls, and are apparently within 5 points of the Conservatives. I think it’s injected a bit of life into the political atmosphere of Canada and more people are becoming interested in this election, which is great! So, now that we’ve talked about apathy in Canada and the part the media has played in this, let’s talk about the parties themselves. In very basic and “figure-it-out-for-yourself” terms.
Okay, so here is a basic breakdown about the differences between the Canadian and American systems of government. Obviously it’s more complicated than this, but I think this is helpful in explaining just how exactly the Canadian government can have so many damn federal elections in so short a time.
Head of state:
- America: President
- Canada: Queen of England
Head of government:
- America: President
- Canada: Prime Minister
Type of government:
- America: presidential-congressional—made up of the president, the Senate (voted in by the people), and the House of Representatives (voted in by the people). The President cannot be in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. They cannot introduce bills, argue policy, or defend attacks in Congress.
- Canada: parliamentary-cabinet—made up of the Senate (appointed by the Governor General (the Queen’s representative) on the suggestion of the Prime Minister), and the House of Commons (made up of Members of Parliament voted in by the people). The Prime Minister and their cabinet have to have seats in the House of Commons. They can introduce bills, argue policy, answer daily questions, and defend attacks in Parliament.
How shit gets done:
- America: Because of the way the American system has fixed terms for all of Congress, the president may belong to one party while the opposing party has a majority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives or both. So for years on end, the president may find their legislation and policies blocked by an adverse majority in one or both houses. There’s nothing the President can do because they do not have the power to dissolve either house to force action. In addition, the president may have a policy they want to get passed and they may convince a senator or a representative to present it to Congress. But then each house can add things to the bill, remove things, change things, and what comes out the other side is very different from what the President had been hoping to pass. This is the same situation for anyone who introduces a bill. In the end, a President does have veto power, but this can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in both houses.
- Canada: No terms of office are rigidly fixed in Canadian government. This means that the government can pass their introduced policies and legislation as long as they maintain a majority in the House of Commons. When the government loses this majority, they must call for a new election, or make way for another party to take over the government. This eliminates the problem of being locked for years in fruitless battles like can happen in the American system of government. In Canada, the government and the House of Commons cannot be at odds with one another over a matter of importance for more than a few weeks without forcing action to solve the problem. This is why this current election is our fourth since 2004—none of those elections have resulted in a majority government.
And a smack down by The Honourable Eugene Forsey:
Presidential-congressional government is neither responsible nor responsive. No matter how often either house votes against the president’s measures, there he or she stays. The president can veto bills passed by both houses, but cannot appeal to the people by calling an election to give him or her a Congress that will support him or her. Parliamentary-cabinet government, by contrast, is both responsible and responsive. If the House of Commons votes want of confidence in a cabinet, that cabinet must step down and make way for a new government formed by an opposition party (normally the official Opposition), or call an election right away so the people can decide which party will govern.
An American president can be blocked by one house or both for years on end. A Canadian prime minister, blocked by the House of Commons, must either make way for a new prime minister, or allow the people to elect a new House of Commons that will settle the matter, one way or another, within two or three months. That is real responsibility. —from How Canadians Govern Themselves by Eugene Forsey (which is a good read if you are interested in that sort of thing.)
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