November 2003: On Canada's Mind

Better policies are not enough – we need better politicians, too
November 1, 2003

Will Jean Chrétien’s bill to reform election financing restore public confidence in the political system, as he says it will?

Parliament passed the bill in June. It caps corporate and union donations to federal parties at $1,000 and allows contributions only to riding associations, not directly to the parties. The bill also caps individual donations at $5,000.

To compensate for kicking the donations habit, the parties will earn a $1.75 subsidy for every vote they received in the previous election.

"This will make Canada a model for democracy," the PM said, denying that his end-of-regime reforms were “repudiating the system that allowed myself and so many others to serve this great country.”

Chrétien insists that corporate contributions don't corrupt the political system (how could he say anything else?). But most people feel they do. One in three calls corrupt political leaders a “very big problem” in Canada,” according to the Pew Research Centre for the People.

Chrétien has a good sense of the public mood. The taxpayers loathe politicians as a class and think their contributors have more sway than their constituents. Politicians are at the bottom of the list when poll-takers ask which professions and people you trust. Individual politicians are considered exceptions. In Alberta, a majority thinks Premier Ralph Klein is honest. Prime Minister-in-waiting Paul Martin has a reputation for honesty, too.

But the public’s profound cynicism about politics is too deeply embedded to be changed soon by just a modest fix such as Chrétien’s campaign finance reform.

There are two kinds of fallout from the public’s cynicism: a declining attention span for political news, and shrinking turnouts in elections.

Political news seems to monopolize the front pages and newscasts, but only half of Canadians follow political and government news on a regular basis. Among those under 30, a recent Vector poll found that only 33% look for political news every day.

Election finance reform won’t restore faith in the political system because it comes too late. Among non-voters, a 37% plurality said they didn’t cast a ballot in the 2000 federal election because no party represents them or because voting makes no difference. Turnout in the 2000 federal election was off 23% from the its 1950’s peak. In provincial elections, turnouts typically have fallen to under 70%, down from nearly 80% in the 1960s.

Well-meaning types feed public cynicism. Advocates for proportional representation, for example, say your vote is wasted in the current “undemocratic” winner-take-all system.

People are disconnecting from the partisan political grids. Anyone deeply committed to change joins an interest group, not a political party, and usually ends up working against politicians instead of for them.

The amazing finding in the polls is how alike non-voters and voters think. They’re all fed up with the political show and most of its performers.

• A third of all eligible voters say they have no party attachment, and the share that “strongly” identify with a party has declined from 37% to 18% since 1980.

• The share of adults who have “some” or “a great deal of” confidence in political parties has fallen from 30% to 13% over the same time. Confidence in the House of Commons has dropped from 38% to 24%.

• A 55% majority has no or “not very much” confidence in political leaders.

• 73% say “most political leaders do not tell the truth or keep their promises,” and nearly nine in 10 say politicians “often lie to get elected.”

Until the 1970s, opinion polls showed that the public trusted government, but not the people in charge of government. That’s changed. Only three in 10 Canadians now say governments have a positive impact “on most people’s lives.” The rest split evenly between those who think governments have “not much” influence on their lives or have a negative impact on most people.

It doesn’t help that people who want to save government from tax-cutters, deregulators and privatizers seem to hate the state as much as the reactionaries do. NGOs and unions that want to increase funding for public services repeatedly say how awful conditions are in the public schools, the health care system, and other essential public services, apparently convinced that failure is more appealing to voters than success.

By several yardsticks, today’s politicians are less corrupt than 40 or 50 years ago. Our public services certainly are better. The problem is that expectations have soared.

In the stores, everything seems to get better and cheaper. If a purchase disappoints, we can return it for a full refund. Merchandisers and advertisers elbow each other to compete for our dollars and loyalty. Transferring our marketplace experiences to the public realm, we wonder: Why can’t government work that way, too?

The Chrétien campaign finance reforms will not halt our declining confidence in the state and politicians. Perhaps deep skepticism toward politicians is better than blind faith. But for people who feel that government is the answer --not the problem--these are devastating findings. They mean that progressive political activists need more than better policies to recapture the voters’ trust. They also need to repair the public’s distaste for politics as we know it.


(Marc Zwelling is president of Vector Research + Development. He conducts polls and creates communication strategies in Canada and the U.S. for unions and other clients. He can be reached at [email protected])