With news that the last federal election was our lowest voter turnout ever, we are asked once again to consider ways to get people involved in the political process. Some point to mandatory voting like they have in Australia. Others believe that a system of proportional representation will be the panacea for our democratic ills. But I believe there is another forgotten option.
In most schools today, the role of the parties is often left out when we are taught about the way the political process works. We are left with the impression that candidates appear almost from thin air for us to elect, and party policies are similarly either drawn out of a hat, or come from the edicts of some shadowy cabal at the centre of the party. Or maybe that’s just how it came across in high schools in Alberta in the ’90s.
It wasn’t until an old roommate of mine joined a party and actually began organizing at a grassroots level that the piece of the puzzle slid into place for me. This was it — the involvement that I had never actually heard mentioned, nor seen in action before. It made me wonder — is our lack of civic engagement due in part to the fact that we’ve left the role of party membership out of the equation?
I decided to talk to someone about his experiences in party organization. Denis Schryburt is an active member of Ottawa’s queer community, and he’s also the Liberal riding president for Ottawa-Centre.
For members of the queer community, that issue could simply be the rights that we’re lacking, or changes we’re looking to have made in the laws that discriminate against us.
From there, Schryburt says that you need to look at all the parties and do your research. “Don’t let your friends or family tell you which party to join,” he said. “Make it an informed choice, so you know where they stand on your issue.”
Sounds simple enough, right? And finally, he offered this bit of advice: “Once you’re in there, voice your opinion — don’t be shy. Candidates and MPs are people too, so don’t be intimidated.”
And that’s it — you’ve got your foot in the door. Start talking to people, find out who listens to you and your ideas. Some parties have groups within or attached to them devoted to certain issues. In the case of the queer community, there have been examples like the Liberals for Equality, which organized around the 2004 leadership convention, and they engaged the party membership on the issue of same-sex marriage.
By being in the party and having that “in,” it means that you have a new means of engaging those who make policy. Gaining support for your issue means that it gets put to the party membership as a whole in a policy convention, and your issue could wind up being part of party policy.
Party leaderships are another way in which becoming a member gives you a means of getting involved. When there is a leadership campaign going — as there is in the Liberal party right now — you have a way of directly engaging the candidates about your issue. You can see how they’ll respond and you can help to persuade them about your issue’s importance.
Now, granted, sometimes it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes a party will not be responsive to your issues, at which time you have to decide whether their values as a whole are worth your sticking around and trying to change their minds, or whether it’s time to shop around for a new party.
This is a process that most Canadians seem to have forgotten. Instead they feel disengaged. Many youth don’t vote because, I believe, this process of grassroots involvement isn’t being taught in schools anymore.
Our community will line up at microphones during all-candidates debates at election time, but parties don’t seem to have a handle on just what some of our issues are. And maybe it’s because we expect them to come to us, when instead we should perhaps be going to them.
There was one other thing that Schryburt said to me that resonates — joining a party and getting involved has given him a much greater appreciation for this country. He’s met so many interesting groups and learned about so many other issues that he never would have otherwise. And perhaps that’s what we need more of. More engagement that will create a dialogue between parties and communities.
Perhaps it’s not that the machinery of politics is broken, but that we simply need to remember how to use it.