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Young voters and the democratic deficit

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The troubled economy may be front and centre in the lead-up to this fall’s federal and provincial elections, but some say there’s another, more urgent problem underpinning Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador’s social, economic and political woes: the democratic deficit.

A spokesperson for a St. John’s-based pro-democracy group that is working to engage voters in this province, and to encourage them to participate in the rebuilding of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador’s democracies, says one of the most troubling parts of the province’s democratic deficit is the number of young people who vote.

Erika Steeves of Democracy Alert says the fact less than one-third of eligible voters in this province between the ages of 18 and 24 cast their ballots in the last federal election is a big problem given young people stand to lose the most as we enter an era of unprecedented crises and uncertainty.

A Globe & Mail editorial last April described Canada’s declining youth voter turnout as a “vicious circle, in which the less youth vote, the less the parties reach out to them, and the more disengaged they become.

“Instead of doing something about this dilemma,” the editorial argued, “the current political discourse is designed to exacerbate it.”

But young people know what’s up, Steeves said, and if they decide to vote they could drastically change the political landscape in N.L. and Canada this fall, including whether Canada attends the crucial November climate summit in Paris as an antagonist to global cooperation on climate change, or as a protagonist.

“I think voting can be an entry point for young people to then participate in the wider process of renewing participatory democracy and bringing systemic issues like precarious employment, rising inequality, student debt, and climate change to the forefront,” she told The Independent in a recent interview.

In Canada, at present, the federal government has veered heavily toward economic liberalization via fiscal austerity, deregulation, privatization, free trade, and other means. Big corporations, often from outside the country, are rewarded with tax breaks and subsidies to do business here, under the belief that remaining economically ‘competitive’ in the global economy leads to the creation of good jobs, which then leads to a just and equitable society where anyone who works hard can live a decent and dignified life.

But if anyone knows best how neoliberalism—ushered in to Canada and cultivated by Liberal and Conservative governments—is not working in this country and province, it’s the young people who are graduating from college and university into a workforce laden with low-income and minimum wage jobs and other forms of precarious employment.

On average, Canadian students are graduating more than $27,000 in debt, while the national student debt—from public and private loans—sits at around $28.5 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, which recently launched it’s It’s No Secret campaign to make student issues a priority in next month’s federal election.

Robert Leamon, Executive Director of External Affairs, Communications & Research with the Memorial University Students’ Union (MUNSU), says he believes a lot more students will be going to the polls on Oct. 19 than in 2011, with the intention of supporting the party with the best plan to address youth unemployment and underemployment.

“We’ve been talking to thousands of students right across the country about these issues, because these are the struggles that students deal with every single day,” he told The Independent following the Sept. 17 federal leaders’ debate on the economy. “And we’ve been hearing that they will be voting in this election, and we’re hoping that students will be the deciding voice.

“In the last federal election 6,201 votes was the difference in which party formed government,” Leamon continued, “and when you consider the fact that just the MUN Students’ Union has 13,000 students, it kind of puts it into perspective — if every student across the country voted then we would have a massive influence over who would lead the country. And I think that’s something that more and more students have been discussing, and they’re getting ready to head to the polls.”

The Sept. 17 leaders’ debate on the economy was hosted by the Globe & Mail, which excluded Green Party leader Elizabeth May because, according to editor-in-chief David Walmsley, “limiting the format to Canada’s three main party leaders…will create a truly focused, successful discussion about the state of the Canadian economy.”

A few dozen students gathered at MUN campus bar The Breezeway to watch the Sept. 17 Globe & Mail leaders' debate on the economy. Photo by Justin Brake.
A few dozen students gathered at MUN campus bar The Breezeway to watch the Sept. 17 Globe & Mail leaders’ debate on the economy. Photo by Justin Brake.

At MUN campus bar The Breezeway, where Leamon and MUNSU screened the debate, students laughed on several occasions as Trudeau, Mulcair and Harper spoke over each other throughout the hour-and-a-half debate, while Walmsley, who moderated the debate, failed to keep the discourse respectful.

Meanwhile, with the help of Twitter Canada, May tweeted her way into the debate, at one point responding to Mulcair’s acknowledgement of student debt by tweeting a video reiterating her party’s promise to “ensure no Canadian student has more than $10,000 debt,” and to abolish post-secondary tuition by 2020.

After the debate, Tyler Cavanaugh, a graduate student from Nova Scotia, told The Independent he’s not holding his breath for any of the main parties—currently in a three-way race to form government—to run a campaign that excites him.

“What I’m looking for is not going to happen — I understand that completely,” he said, explaining he owes the government $60,000 in student debt.

“The biggest debate in this election now is the economy…and how can young people put any money into the economy when we’re worried about the fact that we’re in so much debt?

“I would love to put money into the economy,” he said, “but right now I can’t.”

Leamon said if students are burdened with massive debt, it is “much more difficult for them to be able to buy a house, start a family, or invest in the economy in other meaningful ways — or to find a job in their home province.

“So investing in post-secondary education is critical to the economy, and coming into the debate it’s something we were hoping to see, but unfortunately we didn’t see that.”

He praised the Greens Party’s pledge to reduce student debt and get rid of post-secondary tuition all together though, saying the party’s policies on education are largely aligned with the issues and concerns student unions have been advocating on behalf of for years.

“It’s good to see a party having that kind of conversation about post-secondary education and actually doing something to address the student debt crisis in this country, to address youth un- and underemployment,” he said. “And really what we’re hoping is, now that we’ve seen something from one party that the other parties will follow suit and we’ll be able to get a clearer picture of where everyone else stands as well.”

Getting rid of the deficit

Steeves said Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system is “broken and unrepresentative,” and that democratic reform needs to be front and centre in the impending federal election.

The Greens and NDP have promised to reform the electoral system by introducing proportional representation, while the Liberals have said they would get rid of first-past-the-post but conduct a study before making any decisions on what type of elections to usher in.

Leamon noted a longstanding “disconnect between what the politicians are talking about and what the reality is for many young people and many students on a daily basis.

“If a student or young person is struggling paycheque to paycheque just to get by, they’re not able to think about planning to buy a house because they’re struggling enough as it is just to get by,” he said. “So I think that when talking about young people we need to recognize that there are a lot of people who are living in these situations that are not matching up with what the federal leaders are talking about.”

Steeves said that now more than ever “young people need to take the opportunity to vote and insert their voices into the process.

“We need systemic change on a huge scale – and I can certainly understand apathy and resignation in the face of what needs to be done,” she continued, “but I think young people voting in greater numbers would at least inject a lot of new energy and creativity that can work as part of this necessary change.

“And the best reason to vote is because Stephen Harper doesn’t want us young people to,” she said. “Not voting is a sure way to play into his hand – and to keep all the issues we care about buried underneath his lies, rhetoric, and grandstanding.”

Provincial government launches “democratic literacy” initiative

In an effort to engage young people in democratic processes in Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial Office of Public Engagement recently launched an online democratic literacy toolkit called #YouthCount.

The collection of resources, which features guides to run workshops, templates for panel discussions, and information on a variety of important issues, was “designed to help organizations or institutions, or just educators, bring opportunities to learn about democracy to the young people of the province,” said Anna Smith, a youth engagement development officer with the provincial government.

Smith said that with two elections on the horizon, and in light of the low youth voter turnout in Newfoundland and Labrador, “it was timely to invest in this side of civic engagement, that being democratic participation.”

She stressed though that while elections and voting make up part of the online resource, #YouthCount includes other information and resources—which were “inspired by what young people were asking the Office of Public Engagement for”—useful for engaging meaningfully in our democracies beyond the fall elections.

“[Voting] is not the only way to participate in your democracy as a young person,” she said. “So we really wanted to make the kit relevant beyond the elections this fall, and sort of recognize that perhaps voter turnout is so low because there isn’t a whole lot of information circulating about why participation in democracy generally is important, or why it’s relevant to you as an individual. And that’s reflected in youth voter turnout, but it’s answered by [questions in the toolkit] like, how many women are considering politics, and how does the government even work? How is a law created?”

#YouthCount initially came out of a collaboration with the College of the North Atlantic, and subsequently with other community organizations both in and outside the province, including Samara Canada and Proud Politics. As a result it’s geared toward youth aged 17-24 but features a disclaimer that “organizations using it know their audiences better than we do, so if they think something’s relevant for a younger or older audience, great,” Smith said. “Or if they want help adjusting it for an audience, we invite them to get in contact with us.

“Whatever stripe you wear, this is something that the young people in our communities need to have access to,” she continued.

To keep track of the resource’s use and efficacy, the Office of Public Engagement wants those who use the kit to “post a promotion, post a photo, post a quote from them using one of the resources or running one of the sessions on any social media platform, which we’ll be tracking,” Smith said.

“A lot of people in the province are growing up never being exposed to…basic concepts around how our representatives are chosen, or how our government works to create laws, and this is just really intending to fill that gap. So we hope it’s a resource that’s used by everyone in all of the communities and is seen solely as educational support and providing an opportunity to young people to understand how their democracies work.”

Resources:

  • Click here for the #YouthCount democracy literacy toolkit.
  • Click here to register as a voter for the Oct. 19 federal election (it takes literally two minutes).
  • Click here to make sure you’re registered for the Nov. 30 provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Visit Democracy Alert’s website.

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