Thursday, 31 March 2011

Do we have a "democratic deficit"?

With many eyes fixed on the federal election and national economy, Manitobans can be forgiven for paying less attention to politics in our own province.  Yet, all of the talk has distracted from important questions about Manitoba’s alleged democratic deficit.          

Just as fiscal deficits occur when expenditures outstrip revenues, “democratic deficits” exist whenever citizens’ expectations exceed the quality of democracy they experience.  Thus, a democratic deficit refers to the gap between the performance of a democratic system, on one hand, and the standards of its citizenry, on the other.  Communities with high democratic deficits are those in which politicians, parties, journalists, and other actors underperform and are seen to lack legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate.  Whether due to a shortage of transparency, accountability, or responsiveness, citizens in deficient democracies feel that the power exercised by their leaders far exceeds their own control over the democratic process.  Most observers agree that Canada suffers from a democratic deficit, but does Manitoba?

According to existing research, civic engagement and democratic satisfaction is at an all-time low throughout much of the country.  Important provincial differences have remained outside the focus of most observers, however.  As one measure, voter turnout has fallen as much as thirty percentage-points over the past three decades in some provinces, while holding firm or actually increasing in others.  

This variation is well-represented among Manitoba’s closest neighbours.  At an average of 69 percent since 1993, turnout in Saskatchewan provincial elections remains above the national average (66 percent).  Indeed, following a dramatic decline in the early 1990s, the rate of voter participation in the province has recovered steadily and considerably, reaching 76 percent in 2007.  By contrast, turnout in the most recent elections in Manitoba (57 percent) and Ontario (52 percent) remain among the lowest rates in Canada, ahead of only BC (51 percent), and Alberta (41 percent).  (Click here for more on turnout across the Canadian provinces.)

Yet, turnout alone is by no means a valid measure of a province’s democratic deficit.  It is quite possible that a province with low levels of voter participation, like Manitoba, may feature a relatively satisfied populace.  Recent Probe Research polls suggest two-thirds of Manitobans feel the province is “heading in the right direction,” for instance.  And when asked by survey researchers whether politicians “soon lose touch with the people” who elect them, or whether “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does,” Manitobans’ responses rank them the most positive citizens in the country.  Here and elsewhere in Canada, citizens’ expectations may be met, even if an increasing number of eligible voters choose to stay home on Election Day.  The question then becomes:  
Is the system performing so well that citizens feel little reason to engage, or are our standards set so low that we demand very little from our leaders, institutions, and ourselves? 
 On the other hand, provinces with high levels of voter turnout need not feature highly satisfied electorates.  On the same types of questions, for instance, Saskatchewan residents reported significantly higher rates of political cynicism.  Unlike their eastern neighbours, who seem content to stay home, historically Saskatchewan voters appear willing to head to the polls despite (or perhaps because) they are relatively less satisfied with politics as usual.  Again, this raises the question of whether the Saskatchewan political system is performing more poorly than Manitoba’s, or whether Saskatchewan residents have much higher democratic standards.

To help us solve these puzzles, the University of Manitoba is pleased to welcome three of Canada’s top political scientists to an upcoming Café Politique

Understanding Civic Engagement
4:00pm, Sunday, April 3
Centre Court of Kildonan Place Shopping Centre  

Join in our discussion with Loleen Berdahl (University of Saskatchewan), Elisabeth Gidengil (McGill University), and Mebs Kanji (Concordia University), as they address the many myths and misconceptions surrounding civic engagement in Canada.  Our speakers will also take part in an all-day conference on “Duff Roblin’s Legacy: Civic Engagement in Manitoba”, to be held at St. John’s College on Monday, April 4th.  The day culminates in the 2011 Templeton Lecture on Democracy, delivered at 7:30pm by Professor Emeritus Paul Thomas.  For more information on these events, please visit: and

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Debate Kerfuffle

The dominant topic today is the leaders' debates: who should and should not be invited to them. Yesterday, we found out that Elizabeth May is not getting an invitation to the debate. Today, Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper have been trading jibes on Twitter over the possibility of a one on one debate between the two of them. The word "debate" has replaced "coalition" as the dominant word in the campaign.

What's a bit shady about all of this is the process by which we decide who gets to participate in the debate and who does not. Given that there are nineteen official political parties in Canada, it isn't feasible for all nineteen leaders to debate each other. Being included is obviously a sign of a particular status in the party system, above and beyond meeting the criteria for party registration in the Elections Act.

Some criteria have to be used to decide who gets to participate and who does not. The issue is that there are no clear rules on this and the decision is controlled by an equally nebulous "broadcast consortium" (a coalition of sorts) of the five major Canadian television broadcasters. There is no clear explanation as to why they invite some leaders and exclude others.

I personally believe that Elizabeth May should be invited to join the debates -- her party runs 308 candidates, meets the vote threshold for both the quarterly allowance and the election expenses reimbursement, and her party was the only one that saw its absolute number of votes increase between 2006 and 2008. Frankly, I have a much harder time seeing the point of Gilles Duceppe's participation in the English debate. But the larger point is that the rules aren't clear and it isn't clear who makes those rules.

It's time to take this out of the hands of broadcasters. Our neighbours to the south have a pretty good model: The Commission on Presidential Debates. They have established clear rules -- like them or not -- over what qualifies a party's leader to participate in the debate. Perhaps the campaign could move beyond arguing over who should be included in the debate and actually focus on what the leaders say during those debates.

Watching the "Horse Race": Polling During an Election

It's often called the "horse race": the leaders of the political parties are the horses, and we are the spectators. The increase in the number of public opinion polls being undertaken and reported on during an election campaign is supposed to show us how the leaders and the parties are doing with potential voters. However, do the polls really accomplish this? Are all polls equal? Is this really a useful thing for us as citizens to pay attention to during an election?

Leading pollsters recently engaged in a very public argument about whether or not public opinion polling really matters anymore for election campaigns - and particularly in horserace situations. Joan Bryden of the Canadian Press did an excellent series of articles (start here) that examined the state of polling in federal elections. Dr. Andre Turcotte from Carleton University (and former pollster for the Reform Party) argues that methodological issues with public opinion polls have become so common that political parties are using more nuanced tools that they can use to gather information (or “market intelligence) about how people may vote, what messaging might influence them in the voting process, and to convey information that the parties (or their supporters) want citizens to have. This makes public opinion polling irrelevant for most. This opinion is shared by other well-respected pollsters, such as Frank Graves of EKOS. However, Ipsos Reid’s John Wright and Darrell Bricker suggest that polling still provides valuable information for political parties and for citizens, as long as the information is reported accurately in the media.

Let's focus on who participates in polls as a starting point. Methods of gathering public opinion - including polling - have been criticized for as long as they have been used. In order for a poll to be scientifically valid, we rely on the people selected to take part in the poll to be representative of people in the country or area to be surveyed and we expect that the people who participate are randomly selected. This means that each person of a target population (for example, the population of Manitoba residents aged 18 and older) should have an equal chance (and only one chance) to be selected to participate. Ensuring that we have that accurate sampling of people in our target population has become more and more difficult.

For example, in 21st century Canada, telephone-based polling has been challenged by a number of developments. First, is the growth of cell phone use, which limits how many people can be reached through the phone while also increasing the number of people who may have both a land line and a cell phone, and those who have only a cell phone. We have seen a decline in response rates - the proportion of people who will participate in a survey or poll - because fewer people will answer the phone to participate in a poll. Third, the exponential growth of online polling -which usually involves pools of people who are willing to participate in a poll without necessarily being representative of the entire population - means that we cannot use traditional methods of calculating whether or not who is interviewed really represents the population.

This means that the people who participate in polls - who provide their opinions to pollsters - often vary. We are more likely to see older people, particularly women, participating in telephone polls. Just think of who you know that won't answer the phone for a survey researcher! And then think about who you know - usually younger people - who do not have landlines, but instead have only cell phones. They are very unlikely to be part of a telephone poll. In online polls, pollsters note that we're more likely to see younger, professional, and well-educated people represented in most online communities.

Having said that, there are strategies that pollsters can use to ensure that the information they provide is solid. Less frequent polls - rather than the ones done every day - can shed some very interesting light on what members of the public are thinking. Focusing on one specific area - such as a province - can also help. For those of us interested in Manitoba's involvement in the election, a recent poll done by Probe Research shows us how 1,000 Manitobans think about federal (and provincial) politics. In national-level polls, Manitobans are often grouped with Saskatchewan people because of the relatively small populations in both provinces, so this is a helpful way to focus in on Manitobans and their opinions.

In addition to the responsibilities of polling companies, members of the media have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that they are reporting the information from public opinion polls accurately and not creating a story where there isn't one. As consumers (and creators) of this information, we also have the responsibility to ensure that we understand what is being reported. I would also argue that if we want better information, we should make an effort to take part in telephone or online polls - particularly related to social, political, and economic issues - when we're called to do so.

For more information on methodological issues related to polling, read Alice Funke's piece at the Pundit's Guide and Matthew Mendelsohn and Jason Brent's piece, Understanding Polling Methodology.

Any comments? Do you answer the phone when you know that a survey research company is calling? Do you participate in online polls? Why or why not?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Is it their duty to vote? Young Canadians say ‘meh’

A few years back, Keith Archer and I conducted a study of youth turnout in Canada.  Contrary to common wisdom, we found that today’s youngest generation of voters is no more cynical or pessimistic about democracy than its elders;  they do not appear any more “turned off” of politics than older Canadians.  Rather, Canadian youth seem largely “tuned out” of the political process.  They lack the interest, attention, motivation, knowledge, and other resources necessary for meaningful political engagement.   

Critics may attribute this failure to engage to sheer laziness or apathy, but our research suggests otherwise.  At a much deeper level, the voting behaviour of Canadian youth appears grounded in a very different set of democratic values and expectations.  In particular, would-be electors in their late-teens and early twenties are missing the sense of democratic obligation that older Canadians possess.   While many youth consider voting to be a civic “duty”, very few reported “feeling guilty” if they failed to cast a ballot.  In the absence of this sense of democratic responsibility, younger members of the electorate lack a key motivator turnout at the polls. 

The question is, “why”?

The most convincing explanation suggests that youth have experienced a much higher level of ‘democratic security’ than older Canadians.  By contrast, the fact that attitudes of baby-boomers and their elders reveal a much strong sense of duty and obligation may be due to the scarring effects of the Second World War and Cold War.  A certain democratic Zeitgeist surrounded each conflict and its immediate aftermath.  When compared to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, the voting rights enjoyed by Canadian citizens appeared to be cherished luxuries.

In the absence of any comparable threat to their democratic rights, those Canadians born after 1980 seem to take their democratic security for granted.  Considering the fact that Canada’s youth have spent their entire lives under the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), many of them may treat their ‘right to vote’ as a secure entitlement, rather than the privilege perceived by their parents and grandparents. 

From this perspective, today’s youth appear to approach politics from an entirely different perspective than their elders.  Their high levels of optimism and satisfaction, in this sense, may reflect a different set of democratic standards and values.  Youth may demand less of government, and demand less of themselves in terms of formal politics.  Thus, what appears to be a higher level of democratic contentment among youth may be attributed, at least in part, to lowered expectations. 

This makes sense, considering that today’s youngest generation of voters grew up in a tumultuous period in Canadian political history.  Those under the age of 30 were raised during the contentious period of Constitutional development, for instance, stretching from Patriation in the late 1970s to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown rounds of constitutional amendment.  Many of them also witnessed two referenda on the separation of Quebec, in 1980 and 1995, each of which exposed the raw nerve of nationalism and the seemingly insolvable question of biculturalism in Canada.  Throughout the period, media attention to politics was decidedly negative.

The democratic value shift is attributable to more than crisis points, however.  If their elders were reared in an age where the welfare state was consistently revered and expanded, youth have experienced precisely the opposite in the era of neo-liberalism.  Whereas seniors and baby boomers were raised to demand more of government, the cumulative effect of over a decade of retrenchment and protracted restraint has encouraged youth to expect much less from the formal political process.  In this way, the legacy of neo-liberal leaders – of all political parties – may lie less in their structural reforms to the welfare state, and more in their restructuring of people’s expectations of government.  Moreover, in an era of post-materialism, when Canadians of all ages are beginning to focus more on quality of life as opposed to standard of living issues, youth may feel the least interest in engaging government to fulfill their personal goals.    

Thus, democratic contentment may have as much to do with lowered expectations of politics as any other factor.  Youth may expect less from government, and be satisfied with less than their elders appear willing to accept.  All of this, in turn, may have led to a lower sense of duty and obligation toward the formal political process.

The consequences of this change have serious implications for how the issue of low youth turnout should be addressed.  While a voter education campaign focused on the importance of fulfilling one’s civic duties and responsibilities may be effective for older citizens, the effect is likely to be much less successful in encouraging voter turnout among youth.  The same goes for advocates of making elections more accessible, through initiatives like online voting.  If youth have little interest or see little reason to vote, they won’t turnout regardless of how easy the process becomes.

Rather than improving access or invoking the rhetoric of democratic obligation, more effective messages may focus on a sense of group identity, of equating the vote with the expression of voice, and of making a difference on policy matters.   For recognizing this, we applaud the efforts of elections authorities like Elections Manitoba, whose “Your Power to Choose” initiative is breaking new ground.

To continue the discussion on youth involvement in Canadian elections, U2011 is proudly hosting a Café Politique at Windsor Park Collegiate on May 4, 2011.   Dr. Henry Milner, Mary Skanderbeg (Elections Manitoba), and Carly Welham (MB4Youth Advisory Council) will visit with high school students to shed light on why Generation-Y appears so disengaged from democracy.  The event is open to Windsor Park Collegiate students, and will be webcast on the U2011 website shortly thereafter.

In the meantime, do you have an idea of how to boost youth turnout ?  We’d love to hear from you!   Visit our new Facebook group, where we invite young Manitobans to suggest why we all should “VoteAnyWay” – despite all the cynicism surrounding politics, and for any candidate or party we choose.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Defence and Federal Elections

by James Fergusson, Professor of Political Studies, University of Manitoba

It is rare that defence issues have any salience in federal elections, notwithstanding the conscription issue in 1917 and 1944. The most notable case was the defeat of Diefenbaker in 1963. In the lead up to the election, Diefenbaker prevaricated on acquiring nuclear warheads, which would be under American control, for the Bomarc-B surface-to-air missile. This led to the resignation of his Defence Minister and subsequently an election on the government’s competence. The Liberals under Pearson campaigned on acquiring the warheads as part of Canada’s defence commitment to its allies, and the U.S. Even so, it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which Diefenbaker’s indecision on the Bomarc-B issue was significant in itself to the election of a minority liberal government, or simply symptomatic of larger problems with his government.

Since then, only on two occasions has defence issues appeared as potentially significant at election time. In the lead up to 1988, the opposition parties initially planned to make the decision by Mulroney to acquire nuclear submarines, as outlined in the 1987 Defence White Paper, a major election issue. The issue subsequently disappeared in an election dominated by Free Trade.

In 1993, Chretien and the Liberals focused upon the EH-101 shipbourne helicopter purchase in the election as a wasteful, Cold War, gold-plated platform, promising to the cancel it if elected. During the campaign, Campbell announced a reduction in the number of helicopters to be purchased, suggesting that the Conservatives felt vulnerable on the issue.

Of course, the reduction had no impact, and other issues, including the GST, dominated the election and the worst defeat in Conservative Party history. Moreover, the Chretien decision to cancel the EH-101 at a cost estimated between 500 and 1 billion dollars had no subsequent political impact, and was never raised in future campaigns.

Since then, defence has simply been absent. Even though election campaigns have occurred during periods of significant Canadian military deployments overseas, including the war in Afghanistan, neither the ruling party or opposition have made defence a major issue.

Today, two defence issues exist that could have electoral relevance. The first is the issue of detainees in Afghanistan, which dominated the Ottawa political agenda prior to Christmas. It has simply disappeared, and at best it might be raised as part of the current trust and accountability issue surrounding the contempt of parliament ruling. In and of itself, the detainee is not likely to have any significant impact not least of all because the public has little interest in the question.

The second is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter decision, which has already been mentioned several times by Ignatieff. Reminiscent of the EH-101, the opposition see the decision as wasteful, Cold War oriented, and a gold-plated solution, and threaten to either re-examine the decision if elected, or possibly cancel it outright. If the issue remains on the campaign agenda, the Conservative response will likely concentrate on the economic value of the decision for the Canadian aerospace industry.

With perhaps the exception of select ridings in Montreal, southern Ontario and Winnipeg, with a significant aerospace industrial presence, the past suggests that the F-35 will disappear from the election campaign, like all defence questions. Defence simply has little relevance in the minds of the voting public.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Grey Power & The Seniors' Election

They may not agree on issues like ethics and leadership.  But out of the gate, all major parties in the imminent federal election are in accordance:  2011 is the Seniors’ Election.   Granted, charges of contempt, scandal, hyperpartisanship, coalition-collusion, and game-playing will dominate the soft news coverage of this campaign.  If there is any room for policy discussion, however, it will focus squarely on issues related to Canadians over 60.

I use the words “policy discussion” deliberately, as we are unlikely to see much “debate” over whether seniors’ issues are important (or even much disagreement over how to solve them). 

At the top of the agenda will be topics like seniors’ poverty (to be addressed through changes to the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Canadian Pension Plan), seniors’ healthcare (which will involve reducing wait times for elective surgeries like cataracts and joint replacement, and lowering the cost of prescription drugs), and seniors’ quality of life (including pledges to offer support for care-givers and provinces wishing to expand their homecare programs). 

This overwhelming focus on seniors should come as little surprise for two reasons:

1.       Seniors make up the largest segment of the population.  Since they were born, baby boomers have dominated the social, commercial, and political life of our society.  From the advent of “consumer culture” and the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, to today’s focus on “Freedom 55” (or 65), boomers have influenced every aspect of the Western World.  In this context, “grey power” is only the most recent manifestation of this generation’s dominance.  We would be surprised (even disappointed) if politicians suddenly stopped paying attention to baby boomers.

2.       Seniors are far more politically active than younger Canadians.  In fact, according to most measures in Canada and the United States, Canadians over 60 are twice as likely to vote as Canadians under 40.  In this environment, it would be politically foolish for party leaders and candidates to ignore the largest and most engaged segment of the electorate.

Some will argue that “seniors issues” affect all Canadians.  Most of us have parents , grandparents, relatives, and friends over 60, after all.  And addressing these challenges now will enable future generations to enjoy programs that today’s seniors do not.

Yet in an age when politicians, media, and academics are having such difficulty engaging youth in politics, attracting them with promises of “what’s in it for your grandmother” may not be as successful as  a more balanced focus on issues pertaining to younger generations.

What do you think?  Are politicians placing too much emphasis on seniors’ issues in this federal election campaign?  Is there a way to reach out to other demographic groups, or to make so-called “seniors issues” more relevant to younger Canadians?