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4 min

Don’t blame apathy

Why Canadians are really staying away from the polls

Credit: Tyler Dorchester

March 1958: 79.4 percent.

October 2008: 59.1 percent.

Whatever is causing the steadily decreasing federal election turnout, Glen Hansman is not convinced that the now-universal whipping boy, apathy, is the cause.

“There’s something else going on where some people have lowered their expectations of government and expectations for civil society,” he says.

Murray Dobbin, a 40-year veteran of political commentary, is as baffled as anyone else about Canada’s high number of election no-shows.

Like Hansman, he thinks people’s sense that government is a force for good has weakened considerably.

He points to the Harper government’s legacy of frustrating the legislative work of parliamentary committees and stonewalling their requests for full disclosure, not to mention proroguing Parliament twice.

“It wasn’t that long ago when you had 60 demonstrations across the country against prorogation,” Dobbin recalls. “And the citizen surveys I’ve seen indicate that people really do care about democracy, even more than political parties think they do. Maybe it’s just that there’s no place they feel they can express it.”

Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman is convinced people are concerned about the health of democracy in Canada but are caught up in what to worry about more: transparency and accountability issues, or staving off increasing impoverishment.

“I give the citizens a lot of credit for getting when documents are doctored and there is actual lying going on,” Weissman says. “At the same time, so many of the people I know have two jobs, three jobs, so people are crunched.”

She finds herself straddling “that edge of which is more dangerous” — the shrinking middle class or the steady creep of ideological control.

“I don’t think it’s apathy in the sense of people not caring or not getting it,” she says. “I think many more people look at the [April 12] debate we saw on television and say to themselves, ‘There’s a group of guys with enormous privilege; they’re not in touch in a very fundamental way.’ They talk about being in touch, but their lives are lived out very, very differently than the average working person and their interests are not aligned.”

If she were 18, she suspects the debate’s optics and substance would be alienating.

“I would be going, ‘The hell with you guys; we’ll make our own world,’ and I think a lot of them do,” Weissman says. “I think that may be more the feeling than ‘I just don’t care and I’m apathetic.’”

“People sort of pass off their cynicism and disengagement as sophistication, so the more sophisticated you are, the less you pay attention to politics,” Dobbin observes. “Except that the next day tuition fees triple, and that’s a real effect for young people.”

But the connection between quality of life and how, or even whether, people vote is lost, he says.

Fatima Jaffer, of the City of Vancouver’s gay advisory committee, agrees. Not only do people need to see the outcome of their participation, they also have to feel that their actions can make a difference, she contends.

Jaffer points to the hope galvanized during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, even as she rues the damage done to people’s sense of possibility because reality hasn’t quite mirrored the hype. Just the same, she says, that period demonstrated people’s awareness of their own power and a willingness to act on it that actually translated into higher voter turnout.

Achieving that translation is not easy, however, in a media landscape that often hinders rather than helps the electorate with its political decision-making. “You’ve got all this information that is weighted differently that we’re being barraged with,” Jaffer elaborates, “and if you get a lot of blasts about a particular issue, it suddenly becomes more serious than something else — whether or not it is.”

The end result, says Jaffer, is people are diverted from looking at the big picture. “We’re actually encouraged not to.”

While he can’t pinpoint a precise sociological explanation for the electorate’s ballot-box aversion, Hansman notes the political right shows up consistently to be counted. That’s why they keep winning, he says, even if it’s only enough to form a minority government.

Meanwhile the political left “fights amongst itself, splits off from itself, and lets neo-liberals/neo-conservative parties slip into power and depict themselves as the natural ruling government.”

The left is split, Ryan Clayton agrees, but there’s only one party on the right, which Harper has managed to unite. “That creates a challenge right there; are you going to vote strategically to try to oust Harper, or are you going to vote for the person who best represents your community?”

“It’s the same motivation that’s lacking in other people that’s working for the Conservatives,” says Jaffer. There’s a lack — or a perceived lack — of a clear alternative for people who don’t find the Conservative choice palatable but still chafe at the idea of a Liberal return to power, she adds.

Clayton thinks repeating the Harper-is-evil mantra adds to the electorate’s disillusionment with, rather than engagement in, the political system. “Painting them as the enemy isn’t effective, and we know that from the States. And it reaches the point where issues come up that are purely voted [down] because ‘it’s the party.’”

Clinging to political parties and party lines breaks down what should be a rational debate about issues, he adds. “Stephen Harper goes, ‘Economy, economy, economy,’ and then they go, ‘Liar, liar, liar,’ but they haven’t presented an alternative,” Clayton says. “If I was just paying attention to the debates or I was just paying attention to things I see on Facebook, I would have no idea what [the other parties] stand for.”

The other parties have to re-evaluate how they present their message, he suggests.

What also needs to be re-evaluated is the apolitical environment schools have become, Clayton continues. “You got a generation of people that knew nothing about politics and weren’t interested because it had been removed from their system. My parents knew about politics when they were in school; it didn’t mean they were interested in it, but it certainly wasn’t some mysterious thing.”

Clayton says that what political education he has now didn’t come from elementary or high school but from the internet. “As a result, I believe you get a generation of people who are apolitical because they’re taught to be,” he says.

That said, Clayton has no patience for the “I can’t be bothered to vote” crowd and has no qualms about shaming those who trot out that worn-out bromide. “It’s one thing if you’re disenchanted, but if someone chooses not to vote, I think they’re intentionally dismantling the country, and I will tell people that,” he says.