Friday, March 09, 2012

Getting More Canadians Out To Vote

I was listening to an interview with Glen Pearson, the former MP for London, Ontario, on As It Happens, CBC Radio One, March 8, 2012.  It started as I was pulling into my driveway.  This was one of those great radio moments in which, rather than shutting off the car in indifference and heading inside, I was glued to the radio.

Mr. Pearson gave clear reason to my deep feelings regarding voter apathy and the extreme partisan politics which has debased the Canadian federal political system. Two points in particular stood out to me:

First, he suggested the current Conservative government encourages voter apathy in order to disenfranchise more centrist voters through disillusionment.  This enables the party to win the vote using the more extreme base of the party.  In my mind, this gives the current government the ability to rationalize extreme ideas as having popular support.

Second, he voiced the long standing complaint of back bench MPs who feel they have very limited ability to represent the wishes of their constituents.

Voter apathy is hardly surprising in this landscape.  So how can voter apathy be reduced?

Firstly, voting is a right.  What is less often expressed is that voting is also a fundamental duty and responsibility of all citizens.  However, if you take a look at the section of the Canada Elections Act which encourages citizens to vote, there is no measure to ensure a citizen should be responsible for the exercise of a duty which is fundamental to democracy.  The Act states:

  • 133. (1) No employer may make a deduction from the pay of an employee, or impose a penalty, for the time that the employer shall allow for voting under subsection 132(1).
  • Marginal note:Hourly, piece-work or other basis of employment
    (2) An employer who pays an employee less than the amount that the employee would have earned on polling day, had the employee continued to work during the time referred to in subsection 132(2) that the employer allowed for voting, is deemed to have made a deduction from the pay of the employee, regardless of the basis on which the employee is paid.
Marginal note:
This section of the act means to encourage everyone to vote by ensuring that no citizen will suffer financial loss in the exercise of voting.  The Act is saying society as a whole should pay the cost an individual may face when exercising his or her right to vote.  The glaring flaw of this approach is the presumption that all citizens will accept the responsibility to vote for which they are being paid, by society as a whole.

I don't believe a citizen should be mandated to vote by threat of sanction.  I also believe society as a whole should not be paying the cost of those who see election day as nothing more than a holiday.  To balance these beliefs, the legislation should be amended to cause Elections Canada to issue receipts for exercised ballots.  This need not be any more than an additional tear off piece of the ballot which is returned to a voter once the ballot is submitted.  This receipt can then be submitted to an employer before an employee is eligible to receive the benefit of pay for time taken to vote.  Other carrots could be designed to sensibly encourage those who receive income, by means other than employment, to be socially accountable.  The message of this measure is, "If you are a responsible citizen, society will accept the cost."

Secondly, as many others have stated, all MPs must be able to represent the views of their constituents.  Citizens must be able to get a sense for the true reasoning and caring nature of those who wish to serve Canada.  In this manner, each of us will feel represented and engaged by our politicians.

This requires careful balance, however.  Governments must have a certain level of stability or rivalries may occur like those prior to the Great Coalition in which governments fell faster than maple leaves from one autumn to the next.

Yet, it was government paralyses which led to MacDonald, Cartier, Brown, and others to realize that the status quo was a failure.  If these politicians didn't have the guts and freedom to break from political dogma, Canadian confederation may never have happened.  Always towing the party line is no way to intelligently build and manage a nation.

I do not believe it would take a complex change in parliament to address the lack of reason that dogma causes.  One simple way to ensure effective debate and to show us all what our individual MPs are made of is to make most parliamentary votes free votes.  The decisions of parliament should be based on debate; debate should not be civilized or uncivilized insults in reaction to a fait accompli as dictated by the Prime Minister and his back room strategists and cronies.  I voted for the wisdom I saw in a candidate running in my riding, not some political hack beholden only to the success of a party in an election.

To ensure a certain level of stability and maintain the ability for a given government to implement a general political ideology, confidence votes, such as non-confidence motions and money bills, should still be subject to the party whip.

Only brave and reasoned ideas will ensure we, as part of the great idea which created Canada out of partisan political bitterness, can continue to compete and matter in a world that rewards wisdom and intelligence.

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