Low voter turnout not surprising

June 14, 2004

There appears to be plenty of wringing of hands these days as governments come to terms with decreasing voter turnout in Canada. In 2000 only 61% of eligible voters bothered to vote federally - down from a high of 79% in the late 50s early 60s and a drop from 70% ten years ago .

Much of the emphasis appears to be on blaming the non-voters for their apathy, for being uninformed, and for having a "weak sense of civic responsibility." But is it really any wonder that citizens have become disillusioned?

For the past two decades, during a period of economic turmoil, governments have insisted that there is little that they can do to support citizens. Governments have chosen to abandon their responsibility to protect workers, communities, the environment and the vulnerable.

It seems reasonable for a citizen to conclude: if governments and political institutions are unwilling, or claim to be unable, to address the issues that are important to me, why should I bother voting?

Governments have consistently rejected the priorities of Canadians. While polls tell us that voters during the 1990s were most interested in social programs and the environment, the Liberals chose to prioritize the deficit and tax cuts. In the process they gutted the very programs that we said mattered most.

Governments in Canada actively sought to decrease citizens' expectations and to stifle public debate. Rather than talking about balancing priorities with the need to address the financial challenges, we were force-fed the myth that the country was in a fiscal crisis.

We were told by government and big business that we had no choice but to drastically cut programs and to turn our future over to the private sector.

We were told that government could not and should not play a positive role in our lives and in our communities.

The scope of public policy was decreased. Governments' capacity to promote the public interest was diminished. The direction of the economy and our society was privatized. The rights and entitlements of citizenship were cut back and redirected to the market over which we have very little control. Unless of course if we're wealthy.

Hand in hand with the commitment to a "free" market economy is the promotion of the myth that anything to do with governments is bad. Governments are depicted as wasteful, corrupt and intrusive while markets are portrayed as efficient and responsive. No wonder many Canadians have become disillusioned with the political process and the institutions of government?

And no wonder some Canadians are more disillusioned than others. An Elections Canada sponsored study notes that youth and lower income citizens are less likely to vote. Youth unemployment is twice the overall rate of unemployment. Tuition fees have skyrocketed over the past decade, as governments cut funding to post-secondary education and youth are told there is nothing that can be done. Many low income Canadians have given up hope that governments will do anything to provide adequate support to the unemployed and the working poor. What difference will voting make?

At another level the low voter turnout should not come as a big surprise. Parliamentary democracy was not designed to empower and engage the majority of citizens. Historically it developed as rear guard action by political and economic elites to maintain their position of privilege while appeasing the demands of the sometimes unruly masses.

Most of us know where the real concentration of power lies - and it's not in the hands of your average citizen or even with the governments that we elect. The real influence and power rests with the few citizens and large corporations that dominate the economy.

The challenge for democratic governments in the context of capitalism is how to manage the demands of the majority, while facilitating the accumulation of wealth for the few. Maintaining the notion of political equality of all citizens in the context of increased economic inequality is no small task. But a failure to achieve this risks undermining the legitimacy of governments and political institutions in the eyes of citizens.

It is hardly surprising, then, that during elections politicians present us with a populist agenda, but once elected, the agenda changes. In the early 90s, for example, Martin campaigned on the Liberal Red Book which was full of promises to benefit us all. Once in office, he made deep cuts to social programs. Harper is engaged in the same exercise, claiming during this campaign that he can do the impossible, provide drastic tax cuts and still support social programs, protect the environment and balance budgets.

Our democracy is a work in progress and reforms must be made. Proportional representation would certainly help. All votes would count and governments would be more accountable. And more citizens might vote.

But we need to also be aware of the limits of voting. Elections are but one aspect of keeping our society democratic and progressive in the context of unequal power. Of equal importance in holding governments accountable and promoting and defending citizens interests are labour, environmental and social justice organizations and popular movements.

John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent public policy research institute.