A Seat at the Grown-Up Table?

By | January 13, 2004

Now that he’s finally prime minister, Paul Martin has a lot he wants to do. He plans to personally chair a number of cabinet committees, will have a raft of parliamentary secretaries reporting directly to him, and seems intent on pulling the strings on everyone around him. The positive spin one could put on this is that he’s sat on the doorstep for a long time, and now he wants to do things his way.

Positive spins are fine, but he’s going to need to do more than simply micro-manage the Federal government and his own party. Among the general issues he talked up during the leadership campaign was the urgent need to get young people involved in politics again. He’s addressing a real problem here, and it’s one that doesn’t have an easy solution. Less than a third of Canada’s eligible voters under 25 bothered to vote in the last two elections. It’ll take more than rhetoric and symbolic gestures to bring them in.

Martin is smart enough to know that not reversing this trend will weaken the country, and eventually, marginalize the political processes of democracy. But his first moves don’t appear to be going in the right direct. First, his first cabinet is conspicuously, er, old. That’s probably because the Liberal caucus in parliament is getting long in the tooth. It has 50 Members of Parliament over 60, not a single one under 35 and only 5 under 40. Of those (relatively) young MPs, Martin Cauchon, Denis Coderre, and Maurizio Bevilacqua were all demoted or removed from the new cabinet. Right or wrong, the exclusion of his younger MPs from important roles in cabinet and in government sends a message that young people aren’t going to miss.

Martin followed his cabinet selection with an official invitation to “reopen the debate” surrounding mandatory retirement. This piece of self-defense—conscious or not—contains another unfriendly message to younger Canadians. Baby boomers, in general a notoriously self-interested generation, are unlikely to leave positions of influence if there isn’t a mechanism in place to stimulate turnover and introduce new ideas and people. For the thousands of talented, educated, and qualified younger Canadians currently working minimum wage jobs and wondering why their PhD don’t mean anything, removing mandatory retirement will be deeply demoralizing.

Martin spoke about future skill shortages and the need to fill these gaps with now-potential retirees, but his demographics aren’t quite accurate. Skill shortages will emerge in some high-tech industries, the sciences, applied sciences, and trades, but these aren’t, for the most part, the industries that enforce mandatory retirement in the first place. Mandatory retirement operates primarily in the public sector—in the universities, in schools and in the professional sector. Upcoming shortages of qualified labour in these fields isn’t quite the pressing reality he’s suggesting it is. Most are badly in need of new blood, and renewal.

How he handles a couple of issues left over from the Chretien era will be more telling. He could earn the respect of young people if he acts swiftly and decisively on the issues of same-sex marriage and decriminalizing marijuana. The Supreme Court decision to uphold our existing possession statutes puts that decision squarely back on the plate of the Federal government. In their decision the Court wrote that upholding the existing law isn’t the end of the debate but rather a redirection of it to where it should properly take place – inside the House of Commons. It’s an issue that can’t be dodged, evaded, obfuscated or ignored much longer, and Martin would gain a great deal of credibility among young Canadians if he moved quickly to amend the laws, decriminalize possession of small amounts and move on to the real issues that face the country.

The same is true of same-sex marriage. While his colleagues in the House of Commons may have moral reservations about legalizing same-sex marriage, younger Canadians clearly do not. Pierre Trudeau once described the Liberal Party as “the radical centre”, an image that held deep appeal to most young people. Martin could renew that Liberal claim to the “radical centre” by doing the right—and sensible—thing with same-sex marriage and marijuana decriminalization.

But the best thing that Martin could do would be to get a few younger people elected to parliament. These are the people who are, in the final analysis, Martin’s future—unless he wants to govern the country with pensioners. The demographics might be alluring, but the polity won’t be.

For years, Liberal leaders have encouraged, aided, and even protected female candidates in order to ensure that women are included in government—or at least available for picture-taking sessions. There’s still a lot of work to be done before that gender equality becomes a normative presence in government. Minority candidates have been supported in similar ways, and as a result the Liberal caucus is a much more diverse and representative body than it was 25 years ago.

It isn’t clear why younger people have been ignored in these adjustments. There are millions of Canadians under 35 years old, and many are contributing members of society just like the boomers are. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, athletes, mothers and fathers, employed and unemployed, successful and struggling. They’re also the future of Canada – not the distant future, but the near one– and if they don’t engage now they may never do so.

It’s still too early to judge Paul Martin’s efforts get young people in. A few missteps don’t mean he’s planning a government of the elderly, and I’m as willing as the next guy to give him a chance, particularly on an issue as important as this. But if he wants to make a difference he needs to get his act together, and he needs to do it soon. Passing legislation decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing same-sex marriage is a start. Ensuring that his first post-election cabinet includes young Liberal MPs like Bevilacqua, Coderre, Brison, LeBlanc, and others, and that they are not put merely in token positions, is another. He needs to show younger Canadians that they’re part of the whole. A few twenty-something Liberal candidates in the next election would go a long way towards that.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

Posted in: ,

More from Max Fawcett: