Who's The Boss?, the fourth and latest instalment in the Samara Democracy Report series, examines Canadians' level of satisfaction with their democracy and MPs. Over the last week our brief has received lots of coverage in the media, so we thought we'd invite our volunteers to weigh in on the findings and share their personal perspectives on how things could be improved. First up, a response from Steven Lee.
I always cringe when I hear people cynically dismiss politicians as crooks. It’s a common enough opinion, but as a person who has an oddly romantic view of parliamentary democracy it grates. That being said, I found myself joining the majority of Canadians in their opinions of Members of Parliament, as revealed in the latest Samara Canada report, Who’s the Boss?
Perhaps the survey’s results should be taken as encouraging. Over the last few months, and even years, there has been considerable concern voiced in the media and by citizens over the general health of our democracy. Take your pick: centralization of power, use of prorogation, time allocation, unprecedented omnibus bills – Canadians have been paying attention and perceptions of the national parliament have likely been effected as a result. Analysts, pundits and journalists from all sides have decried this erosion of parliament. The most poignant example to my mind was the At Issue panel’s discussion on October 18, 2012 when Andrew Coyne of the National Post stated that Canada’s House of Commons is an “increasingly largely ceremonial parliament.” Chantal Hébert and Bruce Anderson agreed.
A great deal of the media coverage given to the Who’s the Boss? report has focused on the findings, but the possible solutions have received relatively little consideration. Political parties should be citizens’ allies, not adversaries, in engaging in the political process. As the report puts it, political parties form “a vital conduit between citizens and government.” However, political parties increasingly appear to be operated from the leader’s office and riding associations implement their plan, rather than the reverse with grassroots influencing the central leadership.
As a millennial (those born between 1980 and 2000) I have taken a special interest in the plethora of articles in recent weeks and months over the state of Generation Y. Michael Bolen of the Huffington Post Canada reflected on the political activism of millennials through the lens of Samara’s most recent reports. Bolen’s central argument is that Gen Y is politically engaged, just not in traditional politics. Why not?
The trouble with traditional politics
I first volunteered on an election campaign when I was fifteen years old, and formally joined the NDP in the spring of 2011. I think some of my experiences within the NDP and ONDP are reflective of why millennials are not more involved in the political process, and these observations are likely not unique to my political party, or province.
Participation in political parties depends on the ability to network, a consistent geography, and experience in politics. Parties operate somewhat like clubs. There is a membership, everyone knows everyone else and a very “insider” feel can be generated by party hacks (as they affectionately call themselves) that can be intimidating to new participants. Since I was 18 there have been two provincial, two municipal, and two federal elections; I have lived in three different ridings and changed address multiple times, largely due to attending university. Being registered to vote is a concern, let alone getting to know the local party in, for instance, Welland, St. Catharines or Brampton West. Even getting to meetings is a problem without a car, or when meeting locations are located far from public transit. If that’s the case in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, I can only imagine living in a rural area and trying to do the same. Finally, being comparatively new to the process means that I, or any millennial, is not yet fully accepted within the party establishment.
Contrast political parties to other aspects of millennials’ lives, the formal institutions simply are less responsive. Take, for example, social media, if a person is interested in getting involved in an NGO they can e-mail, Facebook, or tweet them and will likely receive a response. Politicians and parties too often treat social media as one-way talking-point delivery systems instead of a way to meaningfully engage with those interested in the process. Riding associations, the building blocks of our parties and democracy, have a dismal presence on social media. When millennials want information they take to Google, Twitter and/or Facebook and search for what they want. If political parties are not there with something to meet them they cannot connect. Political parties are opaquely constructed by a series of gatekeepers whose responsiveness and accessibility are often limited. My own efforts in the NDP have only been successful with help from more knowledgeable people I met through social media. E-mails to the central party office seem to disappear down a black hole and are rarely replied to. Party websites often provide limited or out-of-date information.
It seems some elected officials got the memo. During the 2012 NDP leadership campaign the debates were shadowed by a vigorous discussion on Twitter. As an undecided voter, Nathan Cullen’s social media team and supporters found me through my tweets and recruited me to the campaign. The Cullen team held contests on social media and kept followers/supporters engaged. By the end of the campaign social media had helped him move from the lower tier of candidates to third place, and also dramatically boosted his fundraising. However, this is by no means a silver bullet, merely a critical component to making formal politics accessible to millennials and all voters.
In Canada we have largely nineteenth-century political institutions operated by twentieth-century political parties dealing with a twenty-first-century culture and society. More transparent and responsive political parties, particularly at the local level, could increase engagement and help voters feel more connected to their Members of Parliament. With stronger and more engaged grassroots our local, provincial and national politics could only be improved.
Steven Lee is a recent graduate of Brock University's MA History program and also holds a Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Arts Degree. He writes about politics twice weekly at his blog The Orange Tory and on Twitter at @Orange_Tory. He currently lives in Brampton, Ontario.