Saturday, 30 April 2011

Democracy for All?

Of all the issues that have been raised during the federal election campaign – from the economy to the state of Canadian democracy to corporate tax cuts – what has been noticeably absent has been any discussion of Aboriginal issues. This is disturbing, given that, in the words of Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, “First Nations issues matter to all Canadians”. Some progress has been made in certain areas; the federal government’s apology for the residential schools policy and its decision to finally ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are two examples that come to mind. Nonetheless, deep social and economic gaps continue to exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, that in the end weaken us all as a country. Pick any measure – infant mortality rates; incidence of chronic illness; lack of access to affordable housing, clean drinking water and economic development opportunities; high school and post-secondary education dropout rates; unemployment levels; crime rates; poverty – and the figures for Aboriginal peoples far exceed those for the non-Aboriginal population. The “to-do” list confronting Canadians as we work towards undoing two centuries of colonization, assimilation and tragedy not only remains daunting, but serves as a constant reminder of the extent to which our political leaders continue to fail thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across this country.

Unfortunately, the lack of discussion of issues related to outstanding treaty and lands claims, harvesting rights, self-government, education and economic development to name just a few is only one aspect of the problem. The other concerns the ongoing marginalization of Aboriginal people from Canadian political institutions and processes. While it has been over half a century since Inuit and First Nations people gained the right to vote in federal elections, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples remain some of the most disenfranchised citizens in the entire country. While data on Aboriginal voting rates in Canada is quite limited, with wide variations across provinces and communities, from the evidence that is available it is clear that First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations participate in federal elections at a much lower rate than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. In the 2000 election, for example, the national Aboriginal vote stood at 48%, 16% lower than the non-Aboriginal voting rate, while in 2008, barely 10% of all eligible on-reserve voters cast their ballot.

While Aboriginal people are the fastest growing demographic group in Canada, they also constitute a significant percentage of the population in numerous ridings across the country. According to Elections Canada, over 25 ridings in the country have Aboriginal populations of over 10%. Nunavut, of course, is the riding that most comes to mind with an almost 80% Aboriginal population, but ridings such as Kenora-Rainy River (25% Aboriginal); Athabasca (20%) and Winnipeg North Centre and Regina-Qu’Appelle (both 14%) also demonstrate the extent to which Aboriginal votes could increasingly influence election outcomes now and into the future.

While some challenge whether Aboriginal people should even participate in federal and provincial elections to begin with (given that these represent “white man’s” systems, as opposed to First Nations, Métis and Inuit modes of governance), there has also been a concerted effort on the part of the Aboriginal leadership in Canada to encourage their citizens to vote. Websites of the national organizations representing Canada’s Aboriginal population (the Métis National Council, the Assembly of First Nations and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) all contain information on the upcoming election and the Aboriginal platforms of each of the major political parties. Facebook sites have also been created encouraging young Aboriginal voters to get out and cast their ballots; an especially important message given that the fastest growing segment within the Aboriginal population are youth under the age of 25.

Whether Aboriginal Canadians choose to participate in this election or not, one thing is clear. As Joseph Quesnel, a Métis policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy stated to the Aboriginal blog Media Indigena, “just because you don’t take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean politics will take an interest in you. You become part of someone else’s design for political life.” If we are truly going to build a democracy inclusive of all of peoples – most notably our First Peoples – it is critical that these voices be heard. By casting a ballot on Monday, this is one way in which Aboriginal peoples can help ensure that their issues – which are really Canadian issues – finally get heard.

Kelly Saunders, Brandon University

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Cracking the Glass Ceiling

As Canadians we hold the values of equal opportunity, fairness, and democracy extremely close to our hearts. Yet when we look at our elected legislatures, we see that women remain vastly underrepresented all across the country. It might shock some people to know that while women make up a majority of the Canadian population (52%), they comprise only 22% of all elected MPs in the House of Commons. This figure hasn’t budged all that much over the past few decades – in 1993, the percentage of female MPs stood at 18%. What does this mean in the broader picture? Canada ranks 48th in the world in terms of the number of female parliamentarians – below most countries in Europe, but nonetheless still better than the United States (which shares the dubious prize of being tied for 67th place with Turkmenistan).

Aside from basic issues of equity and fairness, does this gender gap matter? The short answer is yes. Women bring different perspectives to the decision-making table, as well as different policy priorities based on their own experiences. Studies also show that women tend to “do politics” differently, in terms of their greater likelihood to seek consensus, work collaboratively with others, and to value negotiation, respect and dialogue in their dealings with opposing members.

A number of proposals aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of women in our political system have been advanced, including legislated quotas, a revamped electoral system (from first-past the post to some form of proportional representation), and targeted subsidies aimed at leveling the financial playing field for female candidates. While these measures may help encourage more women to run for office, on a deeper, more troubling level is what political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin calls the “women plus power equals discomfort” equation – the sense that politics in Canada is still a man’s game. That a double standard exists in terms of how female politicians are treated, especially by the media, has been amply validated by numerous empirical studies and research findings. At the same time, many women are turned off from the idea of running by the crass, attack-style kind of politics which has unfortunately come to dominate the political scene in Canada. We thus find ourselves in a catch-22: if we want to change how we engage in politics, we need a more representative and inclusive political system. But in order to get to that point, we need to change how we do politics in this country.

Equal Voice, a non-partisan national lobby group focused on increasing the number of women elected to political office in Canada, reports that a record number of women (407) are running as candidates in the current federal election. This represents 31% of all candidates; a new Canadian high (in the 2008 election, just under 28% of candidates were women). Maybe, just maybe, on May 2 we can begin to crack through the electoral glass ceiling that still shuts out more than half of the Canadian population. And maybe in the process we can also make public office an honourable calling once again in our country.

Kelly Saunders, Brandon University

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Elections results blackouts in the age of new media

Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal has an interesting column about the ban on the publication of election results before the polls close in British Columbia. Basically, it is illegal for national broadcasters to broadcast results to areas of the country that have not finished voting. In the Internet era, the distinction between broadcasters and average citizens is getting tricky to make and the prohibition on publication of results has been extended to the average citizen. This ban has been getting harder and harder to enforce in the last two decades. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, and smart phones, I'd argue it's now impossible. How are you going to stop people from posting their reaction to the election results on Facebook? Even if they didn't give detailed results, all it would take is a "I'm depressed about the election results" status update from my Liberal cousin in Halifax to know that things weren't going well for her party. Is Elections Canada really going to prosecute everyone who writes something like that?

There is a case for not having people know what the results are when they vote. If we want all Canadians to vote under the same conditions, we presumably don't want to advantage some with information that others don't have. If I am in British Columbia and I know things are close based on results in the rest of Canada, then I might vote differently than if I am sure my local results are likely not to have much of an impact on who will form a government. Furthermore, if voters know that the outcome of the election is already decided before they've voted, it may do even more to discourage voters to turn out.

A solution to this problem is complicated by the fact that Canada is big. Really big. Canada spans five and a half time zones. This makes having everyone stop voting at the same point in time difficult. If we stopped voting at 8PM Eastern time, that would mean the polls would close at 9:30 PM in Newfoundland and 5 PM in British Columbia. There was a move in this direction in the 1990s, when the voting hours were changed so that the polls close at the same point in time from Quebec through Alberta. But that's not enough.

Here's a simple solution if we as Canadians still want to prevent people from being influenced by results in other parts of the country. Keep the voting hours the way they are (or even return to having people vote from 8 AM to 8 PM). However, don't open the ballot boxes and start counting ballots until voters in British Columbia have finished voting. The media and average citizen could then broadcast, tweet, blog, update Facebook profiles to their hearts' content. It would mean a late night for election watchers in the eastern half of the country, but this seems to be a better solution than a law that has been overtaken by a new media environment.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Election Signs in Canada

It’s election season in Canada, and, as usual, we’re seeing partisan lawn signs sprout up like dandelions across the country. As Canadians, it’s easy to forget that lawn signs are not commonly seen in elections across the democratic world. You’re likely to spot lawn signs during U.S. elections, but, in Europe, you’re more likely to see partisan posters and signs in public spaces.

Why do we see so many lawn signs during Canadian election campaign? Mostly because candidates and the people that run local campaigns in Canadian elections think they are important. Local campaigners place great importance on deploying more signs than their opponents, and on deploying them strategically around the ridings.

Once the election writs are dropped, these local campaigners immediately start to hand out signs. They retrieve lists of people that hosted signs in previous elections and have volunteers call them to see if they would like to host one in this campaign. Once they have a list of locations, the campaigners plot how to deploy signs throughout the riding, in order to maximize the likelihood that residents will see them. Volunteers are then given the addresses and the signs are pounded into the ground—usually, willing hosts arrive home from work surprised to discover that a volunteer has arrived and planted a sign in their front lawn. Once these are handed out, local campaigns think about how to fill in the gaps.

There are two primary benefits of lawn signs, from the perspective of these local campaigners. First, it lends candidates an aura of momentum. This is why candidates value lawn signs over highway signs: one volunteer can pound in a hundred highway signs, but lawn signs actually signal solid support. Second, lots of lawn signs deflate opposing campaigns. Volunteers can easily feel swamped and discouraged if they see many opposition signs throughout the riding.

In every campaign, the media seizes on stories of defaced signs. This occurred in Ottawa during this campaign, with someone ominously painting crosshairs on signs. However, it’s very unlikely that volunteers from other campaigns were involved, or that they methodically go about defacing signs from other campaigns. They know what an undertaking it is to put up signs, and they also know that the finger will always be pointed at them if signs are defaced.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Why (do you) vote?

Academics and journalists have spent decades trying to figure out why some citizens choose not to participate in elections.  Their research has uncovered a wealth of information about non-voters.  We know they tend to be less affluent, less educated, and younger than their voting counterparts, for instance. 

By contrast, we have spent far less effort trying to explain why some Canadians actually do show up at the polls – an equally perplexing question, when you think about it.

Considering the overwhelmingly negative tone surrounding elections, and the lack of interest and faith most Canadians place in politics and their politicians, it is actually quite remarkable that more than half of eligible voters cast a ballot on Election Day.

Add to this the fact that, aside from a small number of “close” races, the outcomes of most ridings appear decided before the writ is even dropped – and you have what political scientists refer to as “the paradox of voting”. 

According to the theory – modelled famously by economist Anthony Downs (1957) – voting is, in many ways, an irrational act.  The costs associated with voting far outweigh the benefits.    By “costs”, Downs largely meant the amount of time it takes to participate in the electoral process – from registering to vote, to becoming informed about the issues, candidates, and parties, to actually venturing to the polling station.  These costs are weighed against the chances that a citizen’s single vote will actually “make a difference” in the outcome of the election.  The less competitive the race, or the fewer the differences between the candidates involved, the less impact one’s vote would have.

According this (admittedly narrow) definition of “rational behavior”, it makes little sense to invest the time and energy to vote; non-voters may be acting quite “rationally”.

So what drives Canadians to the polls, despite all of this?

To an overwhelming majority of Canadians, the act of voting is a civic responsibility.  Indeed, that over 90 percent of Canadians view it as “every citizen’s duty to vote in federal elections” suggests that the country retains a strong commitment to the franchise.  (For more on this data, click here.)

Without a sufficient sense of duty or obligation, voters of any age are less likely to engage in the political process.  Whether involvement concerns taking an active interest in political affairs in general, or obtaining information and tuning into media reports about the campaign, those people who feel less compelled by their own value system to participate in politics are less likely to cast a vote in an election.  From the opposite perspective, those Canadians with a deeper belief in voting as a civic duty and a stronger sense of obligation to vote are more likely to derive a solidary benefit from the act of voting, itself.  By avoiding a sense of guilt and fulfilling what they perceive as their democratic responsibility, these citizens are able to overcome the classic “paradox of voting”, and perceive actual benefit from the voting process – regardless of its outcome. 

This civic commitment is not evenly distributed among the electorate, however, as Canada’s youth remain substantially less likely to feel a sense of duty when it comes to voting.  Over one in five youth disagree with the idea that citizens are duty-bound to cast a ballot; this compares with fewer than one in ten people aged 26 to 45, and fewer than one in twenty Canadians over the age of 46.  To be certain, over half of Canada’s youth view voting as a civic duty, with 50.9 percent “strongly agreeing”, and 28.1 percent “agreeing” somewhat.  Still, the strength of this sentiment is considerably lower than that of their elders, suggesting that youth have a unique perspective on the role of citizens in the democratic process.

The challenge, then, is to devise new ways of convincing youth that it is “worth it” to visit the polls.  (Simply saying "it's your duty" doesn't seem to be working.)

Why do you vote?  Share your comments below, or join our Facebook Group as we try to convince Canada’s youth to VoteAnyWay.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

MPs and Constituency Service in Canada

It is well known that we Canadians do not generally think highly of our politicians. And, watching coverage of this election campaign and the shenanigans of Parliament's daily Question Period, it's easy to understand why that's the case.

But the bravado and conflict that make up coverage of election campaigns and the day-to-day workings of Parliament obscure another type of important work that Canadian MPs perform: constituency service. Politicians maintain constituency offices and staff so that they can respond to requests for help on a range of issues. In urban ridings, for example, MPs and their staff respond to many requests for assistance on immigration and citizenship issues; for example, one Toronto MP has a staff member who works full-time on these issues. Other MPs provide assistance navigating government regulations, on taxes, for example. You might have even turned to MPs and their staff for assistance in the past.

MPs put a lot of effort into this "social worker" function of their job because, while they're not sure that doing so helps them get re-elected, they are sure that failing to help out constituents can hurt when they run for office again. But that's not the only reason that MPs put so much effort into helping constituents. In his book Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa, David Docherty reported from interviews that MPs put effort into service because they think that this is the most rewarding aspect of the job. In other words, MPs like to help people in need (more than they like sitting in the House of Commons yelling at each other), and they put alot of effort into doing so.

When MPs and their staff focus on a particular problem, they can make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Canadians. Anecdotes always help drive these points home. Mitchel Raphael has an exceptionally persuasive account (it's only a paragraph long), starring Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan with Conservative Jason Kenney in a supporting role.

It's tough to dislike all politicians after reading accounts like this. This is especially true when you consider that less dramatic but similar scenarios play out every single day in riding offices across Canada. Maybe in this campaign it's time for us to spend less time paying attention to Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff double-dog-daring one another to debates, and more attention to the candidates in our ridings that are going to be playing important service roles after the election (and the debates) are over.