Ways to Grow A Silent Majority

Bless her, Chantal Hebert has seen it all. When she sighs and gestures in response to Mansbridge’s questions on CBC’s political panel, her weariness is felt across the country. Her newspaper columns convey the same sense of fatigue.

What seems to exhaust her is the obligation to say, day after day, what she sees going on in the halls of power. Unlike other pundits, she rarely indulges in elaborate theories and predictions. She grinds out a daily dose of reality, in elegantly plain language, for people who are either deluded or oblivious about government and politics. Yet she can still rouse herself to indignation, as she did yesterday in a column about the Harper government’s “Fair Elections Act.”

If Hebert was really comfortable with the logrolling that goes on between media and politics (one needs news, the other makes news; one sells exposure, the other buys exposure), she might have limited her comments to the tension between the Conservative Party of Canada and Elections Canada. Like so many of her colleagues, she could have diminished the significance of this legislation by focusing on the interplay between a political party and an agency of the Crown.

That’s how the mainstream media covers politics, like it’s a sport. Debate performances are scored for us like boxing matches. Polls are studied like racing forms and all the pundits lay odds as voting day approaches. In fact our “first past the post,” system takes its name from the horse track. When play in the legislature stops for the day, the agenda is reset in a media scrum after. Politicians don’t compete or contest or bid; they run for office. The public might be forgiven for thinking that politics is a spectator sport when it’s presented as a title fight, a foot race, a rugby match, or the Queen’s Plate.

After a succession of inquiries and scandals put the Conservative Party of Canada on the defensive about fund raising and campaign tactics, it would be fair, but trite to speculate about the government’s exclusion of Elections Canada from consultations in preparation of the “Fair Elections Act,” and for inclusion of provisions to constrain the agency’s power. Hebert could have stretched this hypothesis out to fill an entire column, ending with a sweeping generalization about how Harper has once again rejigged the rules of government to undermine opponents.

To her credit, she went deeper into the 240-page document, isolating objectionable details, and extracting much more important themes from it. For example, the elimination of Elections Canada’s voter outreach programs affects more than the agency’s budget. It also removes one possible means of improving voter turnout. She also points out that the bill will make it more difficult to gain approval for electronic voting options in the future. Taken together, she concludes, these and other features of the legislation work against the inclusion of more young people in the voting process.

As she reminds us, only 38.8% of voters aged 18-24 cast ballots in the last federal election. Wouldn’t they have been prime targets of Elections Canada’s outreach programs, wouldn’t they have been the early adopters of any electronic voting options in the future, and wouldn’t they have been the age cohort least likely to vote Conservative? Of course they would, which is the conclusion Hebert draws about the partisan motive at work behind the “Fair Elections Act.” Thank you, Ms. Hebert.

This tendency to focus on partisan interests, in politics and media, comes at the expense of voter engagement. It’s evident in all the ways that political parties practice their craft. The federal Conservatives aren’t the only ones employing strategies that inhibit voter participation. They’re just the most obvious about it.

I’ve noted in a previous post how political messaging unintentionally excludes many potential voters, using the pre-campaign communications of Ontario’s parties for examples. Whether it’s by intent or omission, members of the political class appear to be more interested in talking to each other than in bringing strangers into the conversation. Not surprisingly, their conversations are increasingly unintelligible to those strangers, who now outnumber any of parties competing for power.

What an absurd state of affairs. How can any party claim victory and assert a clear mandate when it has employed campaign strategies that leave an estranged majority on the outside looking in? What have they won? What have we lost?

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