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Friday, March 07, 2008

"the fix is for politics to become relevant to people’s lives."

There's been no shortage of discussion and opinion on the topic of the abysmal 41% voter turnout in the March 3, 2008 Alberta provincial election. With such low voter turnout, it's clear that none of Alberta's political parties, nor the political process as it currently exists, are engaging Albertans. So, what needs to happen to re-engage Albertans?

One of the suggestions that I've heard being bounced around is mandatory voting. In today's column, Edmonton Journal columnist Lorne Gunter defends "the right of citizens not to cast ballots if they are unmoved by the choices." Though I agree with Gunter (yes, that's right...) in that I don't think forcing citizens to vote through fines or penalties is a healthy way to engage anyone in the political process, I'm not sure whether the 59% of registered voters who stayed home on Monday did so on the basis of principle or apathy (I'm tending to believe the latter).

If apathy is the symptom, what is the cause? Some have suggested that the current first-past-the post electoral system is the cause. With Ed Stelmach's Progressive Conservatives' 52% of the popular vote translating into 88% of the Legislature seats, it's clear that the composition of the next Alberta Legislature are not reflective of the votes cast province-wide on Monday's election. Ken Chapman argues that mere electoral reform won't fix the problem and I agree. Though I whole heartedly believe that Albertans need to take a serious look changing the electoral system, I think that it's a bit naive to believe all of a sudden changing the way ballots are counted is the silver bullet that will boost voter turnout and engagement. It's clear that there are deeper issues as to why Albertans are opting out of the democratic process, and Ken put it plain and simple:

"[t]he fix is for politics to become relevant to people’s lives."
Easier said than done, but I couldn't help but be reminded of my New Years resolution from 2007. Participation in democracy is a much broader and important act than simply showing up to vote every four years. Albertans need to reclaim their politics and stop letting politicians and partisan agendas frame the debates and define the issues which are driving the direction of our society. For politics to become relevant, Albertans will need to believe that they can effect change and the emergence of a strong civil society in the form of community and public interest advocacy groups is something that could re-engage Albertans more than any traditional political parties could dream of. Albertans need to take ownership over their province and their political process, and re-engaging on the community and civil society level is probably the easiest way to begin this process.

Alberta's future is too important to leave all the decisions to the 83 men and women under the dome. Alberta's future is too important to allow the defining debates only occur within the traditional realm of partisan politics.

Rumour on the street is that Tory Premier Ed Stelmach will be appointing an unsuccessful Progressive Conservative candidate to head a task force to study why Albertans didn't show up to the polls on Monday. If this is the case, and if the Premier is sincerely interested in discovering why the majority of Albertans are tuning out of the politics, he really shouldn't have to look any further than the rumour of another partisan patronage position to discover why Albertans are opting out of traditional politics.


Nastyboy said...

With such low voter turnout, it's clear that none of Alberta's political parties, nor the political process as it currently exists, are engaging Albertans. So, what needs to happen to re-engage Albertans?

There's just way too much navel gazing going on over the voter turn out. If people don't care they don't care. There's nothing you can do about it.

Just because you (or I) are a political junkie and think this stuff is important, doesn't mean other people will care as much as you do.

There's also too much pontificating about why people didn't come out.

Pundit #1: "Well people just feel disassociated from the process."

Pundit #2: "Y'see we have had one party rule in Alberta for so long people don't think their vote counts."

Pundit #3: "People didn't vote just because they feel everything is going so well in our province they didn't need to.

Nastyboy : "Ever think these people just don't give a shit?"

If there are issues people care enough to get involved with they will get involved.

If not, the essence of democracy is that it's voluntary.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


It's not that simple, though. I mean, in the sense you're talking about, people "don't give a shit" anywhere, but Alberta's turnout is much lower than anywhere else in this country. There's got to be a reason for that.

The real problem is that there's probably not "a reason," but a really complex interplay of reasons, some of which are solveable and others of which are not. Somebody's going to have to really investigate this, not just speculate about it. Surely there's a U of A political scientist who's interested in the topic?

Anonymous said...

I think that your comment on patronage is one clue. People vote to be on the winning side in order to participate in the windfall. Membership in political parties, particularly the major political parties is self-interest.

That being said, what can be done about it? One of the things, if you are a minority party, is to be aware that you need to campaign all the time. When the PQ was formed in Quebec, it rose to seize power in a very short time? Why? Because there was a coalition at work keeping the issue of independence in the public eye all of the time: songs, music, performers were all political, and they were joined by a coalition of labour, university students, and teachers. There were newspapers, films, television programs all focusing on the issue and bringing the alternative point of view to the public eye.

So, in Alberta, there are difficulties. Narrow media channels. No artistic community that the population is in touch with. A dearth of unions. So where can the alternative voice be heard?

And there ARE issues. The problem is that a handful of people in the opposition can't address them any more than the handful of people working in the Alberta media can. It's too big, too complex, to get a handle on. And frankly, the oil lobby demands a blank slate and compliance. If you don't believe me, just look at Nigeria.

The question is basically, is there a political party that can harness community groups to form a long-term coalition that will bring issues to the forefront of the public between elections? Can we recruit artists and performers to the cause? Can we get them airplay and concert dates? And can we build enough momentum that we can eventually win, and to quote Gazette cartoonist Maslin quoting Lesvesque the morning after the PQ won their first election: "OK everybody, go take a valium."


Michel said...

"the essence of democracy is that it's voluntary.

If only democracy were that simple, nastyboy. At some point, 'responsibility' starts to play a role in the operation of a democratic state. Citizen responsibility is needed in order to ensure the functioning of the democracy so that the politicians do not become co-opted by ulterior interests. In this age of entitlement and individualization, it becomes easy to see how responsibility becomes obscured by alternate forces like consumerism and capitalism which hope to keep people tuned into which big screen tv they are going to buy, not which politician to vote for.

Derek said...

You'll have to excuse me as I don't often provide commentary on electoral politics, but here I go:

While Nastyboy has a point that people probably just don't care, I don't think it's adequate to leave it at that. I think Dave (and correct me if I'm wrong) is aware that people don't care, but we can't leave it at that. There is a reason people don't care.

Personally, I think Pundit #3 is to blame: People didn't vote just because they feel everything is going so well in our province they didn't need to.

The thing is, matters certainly seem to be going well in Alberta for many Albertans. We're a rich province, and when many people have the capitalist mentality, that's almost all that matters.

Nastyboy, you touch on it perfectly: If there are issues people care enough to get involved with they will get involved. There are issues people should be concerned about, but they aren't. Any person in their right mind, knowing the state of real problems in Alberta (perhaps the most glaring one is that regarding the environment). I think that with proper awareness about the issues, people can become concerned with important issues. We need to get the message across that if they don't start giving a damn, we're all fucked, essentially.

So, my solution to voter apathy? We need to educate people on the issues and make the information more accessible.

mellina said...

Obviously these people don't give a shit. Just remarking on that doesn't help anybody. What we're wondering is why they don't give a shit, because they certainly should. They should care because what goes on in government has a very direct and tangible effect on their lives. And if they don't see a reason within their own lives to participate, then God forbid we should expect our citizens to get involved because they care about what goes on around them.

When everyone has a stake in the decisions that are made, we shouldn't allow so many people not to participate in them. As the old adage goes, if you don't vote you can't complain. Everyone I know complains about, for example, long wait times in the health care system, yet few of them bothered to vote. It's selfish, if I may say so, to expect so much from the government and yet refuse to do the very least of what is expected of you as a citizen. It's like refusing to pay taxes.

I think at least part of the problem is that we're conditioned to be this selfish. People are increasingly disconnected from each other and from the government, and live more and more in their own worlds. Everyone is focussed on improving their lives by making more money and buying more things, and they just don't see how the community around them or the government applies to this. And they certainly don't care about what problems other people might have. It's happening all over the Western world, but with the oil boom and heavy focus on material goods here (as a result of trying to adapt to the high cost of living), Alberta is the epitome of Western materialism nearly ruining a democracy.

What I think is needed in the long term is a more enforced sense of community, which would have many desired effects besides increasing voter turnout. But obviously this is a tall order and won't be fixed by the next election.

I used to oppose the idea of mandatory voting on the basis that it was too paternalistic, but I've reached a point where if this is what will get people out to the polls, I'm all for it. And making people vote might actually contribute to a stronger sense of community, anyway. If we all have to vote, then we all have something in common. Then maybe we'd talk about it with our friends, family and neighbours. We'd get a wider perspective on life than our own work-life bubble.

Touer Haines said...

I wasn't too impressed with the low turnout, either. I have to say, this is a problem to which I have no real solution. And I don't know if this Tory Mr. Stelmach has appointed will be able to find out, either.

It's what you might call a head-scratcher. With so many problems to be solved and with many people asking for change, why did Albertans opt for the same-old-same-old? No clue.

Perhaps it's a combination of the points nastyboy posted.

I agree with you, Dave, that mandatory voting isn't the answer. As someone who does not consider himself to be a political junkie, I have to say that the idea of becoming even more involved seems even more tiring than casting a ballot every 4 years.

One thing that I think the media touched on that may have contributed to the low turnout: none of the party leaders seemed particularly charismatic. For that matter, I don't think there was any one really polarizing figure. Kevin Taft, Ed Stelmach, Brian Mason--the leaders of the three major political parties in the province were certainly not strong personalities. I believe we have the same problem at the federal level, and yet the turnout was, what, twenty percentage points higher?

Again: who knows?

Anonymous said...

Remember the polls were clear

- Majority of Albertan's did believe that a change in government was needed and that the PCs were in power for to long.

- The same majority did not know who else to vote for (for whatever reason)

- We have not experienced an economic slowdown traditional territory required for government change.

It did not help when the Edmonton Journal posted a poll before the election that the PC's were headed to a majority and possible breakthrough in Edmonton. I wonder what would have happened to the PC's if the story was the other way around?

Thinking about this I don't know what the difference is between ruling governing parties that send their solders with guns out into the streets during an election to maintain power and our modern democracy and its misuse of polls to influence the outcome of a vote. For many the choice when you’re told who is going to win an election in advance was to stay home, because what is the point of voting? If there were solders in the streets I would have stayed home so I did not get shot. So really what is the difference?

Message to voters, your choice is to be a part of the governing party or get frozen out.

This likely will go on now the opposition's ability to raise money and develop its research and policy capacity is even more limited than ever before.

With the controls on access to public information the way they are it will be even harder to suggest better ways of doing business than the governing party.

The result -- one party rule

For me it’s weird to type this because I am conservative in my political views however I have enough of long term perspective to know the possible consequences given the nature of this win.

Aaron said...

Read Saramago's book, Seeing.