I have to begin by admitting that the title I’ve chosen is a bit misleading. It’s not self-referential, and those who have read my other columns probably know that I’m a Liberal, albeit an annoyed one right now. Instead, I’m speaking on behalf of my generation, the young voters who are being so aggressively courted by political parties, the mass media, and Elections Canada itself. If there is one point upon which Canada’s major political parties can all agree, it is that young Canadians must be encouraged to vote more regularly and participate in the political process more vigorously. I’m here to explain why that will, barring some sort of unforeseen disaster or the equally unlikely arrival of a captivatingly charismatic leader, never happen.
First, the facts. There is no question that younger Canadians are the least engaged group in Canada when it comes to politics. Elections Canada reported that only 25% of eligible voters under the age of 25 voted in the 2000 federal election. The consistently declining level of political involvement and interest among young Canadians is not due to a lack of effort on the part of their parents’ generation. Elections Canada has spent over two million dollars creating a strategy designed to encourage young Canadians to head to the polls. All of the political parties pay lip service to the supposed importance of youth involvement in politics. And all of the major networks and media conglomerates have a slough of concerned, slightly paternalistic and even more slightly thoughtful articles about the subject.
Of course, this only serves to feed the problem they’re trying to fix. CBC produced a segment called “the Great Canadian Job Interview”(presumably without the otherwise requisite resume padding). Consisting of an interview with Prime Minister Paul Martin and NDP leader Jack Layton on June 4 in which the leaders answered e-mail questions from young Canadians, it was a well-intentioned effort to engage young people. The leaders also answered text messages sent by the same target demographic. The dominant strategy right now is clearly style before substance – text messaging instead of meaningful ideas.
This is partially due to a realpolitik calculation that the political parties have made. Young voters are the hardest to attract and the most difficult to retain – low-yield targets in political jargon – and so they warrant the least attention. Better to spend the energy, the strategists think, courting immigrant groups, senior citizens, and the upper-middle class with tax-breaks, increased healthcare spending and balanced budgets. For the most part, they’re right, at least if you believe that strategic politics are the only kind that matter.
It is here that the proverbial catch-22 lies. It is not in the interests of the parties to court young voters. As a result, the policies and promises are tailored to appeal to older voters, leaving the Gen-Xers annoyed, isolated, or in most cases completely uninterested. Why would anyone participate in a system that doesn’t speak to them or their concerns?
At this point, some will probably argue that “civic duty” should compel them to participate even if the system doesn’t speak to their issues. In a perfect world – obviously not the one in which we’re living – young Canadians would reflect upon the past, appreciate the unique privilege that democracy provides us with, and get involved. After all, we’re one of the few generations that have been able to choose our leaders among the thousands that couldn’t. But while that’s an appealing academic argument, it doesn’t play on the streets. Real young Canadians, ones who live and breathe and drink and smoke and generally act like human beings, behave in a predictable and, for the most part, semi-rational manner. Politics doesn’t speak to them, so they don’t speak to it.
The wrinkle here is that the political process isn’t just a benign, neutral force in the lives of younger voters. It’s quite plainly malicious. Look, for example, at the issues that are dominating this election campaign. Everyone, regardless of ideological convictions, believes that healthcare must be funded ad infinitum. That’s all well and fine, but when the demographically-bloated Boomer generation begins to get old, frail, and even more injury-prone, those healthcare costs are going to skyrocket. Guess who gets to pay for it? Us.
Or, more generally, look at the Canada Pension Plan. Can anyone reasonably expect that there will be anything left of it after the Boomer generation has pushed its way through? In all likelihood, we’ll be asked to foot the bill and be left with nothing for ourselves. Has anyone stopped to think about what will happen to our generation when we get the keys to the house and the windows are all sealed, the doors locked and the furniture auctioned off? Trade agreements signed by today’s politicians – which tend to be binding and eliminate the possibility of recourse – coupled with the widespread liquidation of public assets may very well create a situation in which leaders of the future are handcuffed by the decisions of the past, unable to create effective change because all the tools needed to do so have been sold off or stolen.
So yes, on behalf of my generation, I say that I’m not going to vote. Do you still wonder why?
Toronto, June 5 — 845 w.