The Aspiration: Canadians who talk about politics and policy with greater understanding and Members of Parliament who serve as reliable, vibrant, two-way links between citizens and government.
Canadians are generally more interested in talking about politics than in the previous report card, and politicians have reached out to talk to a majority of them. This outreach may not be consistent or conducted in a way that resonates with all Canadians. Yet, it provides an opportunity for Canadians to engage with politics and hear others’ political perspectives. MPs have increasingly tuned into social media.
Discussion, already a strength of Canada’s democracy in the previous report card, continued to improve. Two-thirds of Canadians (67%) reported having a discussion about politics in the previous 12-month period, up 6 percentage points from before.
Canadians’ preferred way to discuss politics remains face-to-face or on the phone (54% compared to 34% for email or text message). An increasing number of Canadians follow a politician on social media (34%), up from 23%, perhaps because of the investment many candidates made in their digital activities during the 2015 election.
Even during an election year, when we expected to see a spike in reported contact, only 63% of Canadians reported being contacted by a party, candidate or MP, which is unchanged from the first report card. Only 32% of Canadians reported contacting an elected official themselves.
In a significant change from two years ago, MPs have fully embraced social media as a way to connect with constituents.
In a significant change from two years ago, MPs have fully embraced social media as a way to connect with constituents. All but one MP (99.7%) is present on Facebook, 99% of MPs are on Twitter, 88% are on YouTube, and 56% are on Instagram. A handful of MPs are even experimenting with Snapchat.
This report card saw fewer MPs sending “householders,” the paper pamphlets delivered to all households in a riding and paid for through the House of Commons. While 98% of MPs sent householders in the 2015 report card, this report card sees only 90% of MPs doing so. It is possible that MPs see social media as a better way to connect with Canadians, yet householders can be a way for MPs to reach all constituents’ homes, particularly those who are not very active online. For MPs who choose to use them to communicate about policy in a substantive way, householders can be a way to directly inform constituents about what is happening in Ottawa without the filter of the party or the media.
The Aspiration: Citizens who are more politically engaged—at the ballot box and between elections—and who feel invited and compelled to put their time and energy into politics to effect change.
The participation score went up modestly because of high voter turnout in the 2015 general election. But that turnout number did not translate into increased engagement in other areas of political life. While Canadians give a lot to their communities, even in an election year they are still not participating much in formal political life.
Voter turnout is often considered the most important way citizens engage with politics. For this reason, declining voter turnout over the last thirty years—largely driven by a falling youth turnout—has been a significant concern.
The 2015 federal election saw a reversal of this trend, including among youth. Voter turnout rose to 68%, 7 percentage points higher than the 2011 election, and the highest turnout since 1993. Among Canadians aged 18 to 24, voter turnout increased by an incredible 18 percentage points, with 57% of young people having their voices heard. Turnout among Canadians aged 25 to 34 also increased by 12 percentage points, reaching 57%. Encouragingly, the gap between the age cohort with the highest turnout (Canadians aged 65 to 74) and the cohort with the lowest (Canadians aged 18 to 24) lowered from 36 points to 22.
There is no doubt this rise in turnout, particularly among young Canadians, is good news. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a lasting trend, or whether turnout will decline in the next election.
Formal political engagement
Surprisingly, higher voter turnout and discussion did not translate into greater participation in other formal political activities. Few Canadians participated in a political activity, such as attending a political meeting (30%) or donating to a candidate or party (19%). Currently, only 8% of Canadians say they are a member of a party, which means it is a very select few who have a direct hand in shaping formal politics in Canada. It seems many Canadians, even those who are politically engaged, still do not see party politics as their preferred way to engage in civic life.
It is possible the low rates of formal political involvement are because of the partisan nature of formal political activities. Perhaps Canadians are unwilling to jump aboard a partisan ship, whether in an election year or not. In this, Canadians miss significant opportunities to shape democracy in Canada. Indeed, in 2017, the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois are going through a period of change: As they choose their new leaders, they will also choose the direction of their parties, which will shape Canadian politics.
As they choose their new leaders, they will also choose the direction of their parties, which will shape Canadian politics.
Civic Engagement and Activism
If formal politics continued to turn Canadians off, that was not the case in civic engagement more broadly. Many more Canadians were engaged in community activities than were engaged in formal political activities. A robust 88% of Canadians participated in at least one civic engagement activity, a 4 percentage point increase from the previous report card; Whether donating to charity (84%), volunteering for a charitable cause (59%), or working with others to solve a community problem (46%), Canadians are deeply involved in their communities.
The number of Canadians who participated in at least one of three activism activities declined from 69% to 68%. Participation in protests declined by 1 percentage point and signing a petition declined by 5 percentage points, which may correspond with the overall uptick in Canadians’ general feelings of satisfaction with their democracy. However, Canadians boycotted more (from 37% to 40%).
The Aspiration: Political leadership that operates in ways that are more responsive, transparent and inclusive, with Members of Parliament and political parties that are less focused on winning and more collaborative in their decision-making.
Canadians’ satisfaction with the performance of elected leaders and parties went up. There are still opportunities for diversifying representation of Canadians in the House of Commons.
Canadians are generally more pleased with the leadership of their MPs and political parties than in the inaugural report card, though the grades awarded are still very low. Canadians believed MPs did a better job in all their core roles, including representing their constituents (53%) and the views of their party (63%), holding the government to account (50%), and debating and voting on issues in the House of Commons (56%). Notably, the highest scores still go to MPs’ representation of their parties, rather than their important legislative work. Why is the work around Parliament given such poor marks? Can this work be made more approachable, understandable and constructive so that Canadians award higher marks here?
Even more extraordinary than the uptick seen by MPs was the 9 percentage point rise in approval ratings for political parties, from 48% to 57%. Parties performed better on a wide range of functions, from hearing ideas from party members (55%), to reaching out to Canadians so their views could be represented (53%), to coming up with new policy ideas (53%). Canadians, during an election period, gave political parties a 57% grade on recruiting candidates and competing in elections—a 7 percentage point increase from the 2015 report card. Canadians were also happier with efforts to encourage people to vote, giving parties a 66% on this indicator.
Trust—the “glue” of politics—has largely been in decline over the past 30 years across the world. Some of this shift is attributable to the erosion of blind trust in officials, which is actually positive as such trust is subject to abuse. Yet, political leaders still need some public trust for democracy to succeed.
In this report card, 47% of Canadians trust both MPs and political parties “to do what’s right,” a 7 percentage point increase for MPs and a 5 percentage point increase for parties. While this is positive, as it demonstrates trust need not track downwards forever, more than half of Canadians do not trust political actors, which is an important place for improvement.
There may be reason for skepticism as to how sustainable this increased level of trust will be. Often, with new governments there’s a “honeymoon” period where trust is high, but as a government’s tenure wears on, trust generally declines. Trust that is built on a firm foundation of openness and transparency, by many parties and successive governments, might avoid these peaks and valleys.
Trust that is built on a firm foundation of openness and transparency, by many parties and successive governments, might avoid these peaks and valleys.
Having political leaders look like their constituents is important for allowing constituents to see themselves in politics and imagine a time when they might put themselves forward for office. As well, diverse viewpoints in the House can lead to innovative thinking.
While our current Cabinet was selected to be more reflective of the Canadian population, Parliament generally, with 74% men, still has a long way to go. Women represent half of Canada’s population, but they are only 26% of its MPs. Visible minorities are better represented—they make up 17% of MPs and 19% of the population. Indigenous MPs make up 3% of the House and 4% population. In terms of representation of the youngest cohort of Canadians, representation has lost ground since 2015. Only 4% of MPs in the 41st Parliament are aged 18 to 30, representing 17% of the population.
While Canada has fewer financial and institutional barriers to running for office than many other countries, and Parliament is certainly doing better than in 1867 when it was made up exclusively of white men, more improvement is needed to ensure Canada’s seats of power reflect the diversity of its people.