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

1 comment:

  1. Strange in some ways, yes. The term "cafe politique" draws similar "cafes scientifiques" hosted by health researchers in Europe and North America. While the title of the series may appear out-of-place, our target audience is not. The Elmwood-Transcona area features among Manitoba's lowest rates of voter turnout ( That's why we're excited to visit with folks at KP.