By Sarah Traynor
Deb Matthews, deputy premier of Ontario, leans against an imposing wood pillar, the shoulder of her blue dress crumpling slightly into the grand structure outside the entrance to the legislative chamber in Queen’s Park.
A small group of Ryerson journalism students gathers around to ask her about one of the biggest issues facing young people and politics: Why don’t we give a damn?
Matthews talks a good game when it comes to what might get young people more involved in politics.
“I’m very interested in the notion of lowering the voting age,” Matthews says to the group. She suggests 16 is “not a bad age at all” to start casting a ballot and goes on to muse about online voting helping with apathy and the role of John Stewart-like shows. She makes a point of saying, however, that “this is my opinion. This is not party policy.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne also took time to answer the students’ questions during their Feb. 2015 class visit to the legislature.
“I find the Grade 5 kids who are studying … government (to be) more engaged than the Grade 10 kids taking civics,” Wynne says. “We need to find a way to make civics come alive.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about is, would there be a way of getting young people on the voters’ lists — registering — before they actually leave high school?”
Despite the expressions of interest by the two most powerful women in Ontario politics, none of the ideas are on the forefront of their party’s agenda.
Or any party’s agenda, for that matter.
That’s because when it comes right down to what matters most to politicians — getting elected — the youth vote is for the most part irrelevant.
Only about 39 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 showed up to cast a ballot in the last Canadian federal election, the lowest turnout of any age group in the country.
That was down from about 44 per cent in 2006.
Push them a bit on it and politicians are clear about what’s going on: young people aren’t showing up on election day because the political agenda doesn’t reflect their concerns, but the political agenda doesn’t reflect their concerns because they don’t show up to vote.
Matthews is candid about the consequences.
“If young people voted in the same proportion as their parents and their grandparents we’d have very different platforms, we’d be talking about different things,” she says.
“If young people … exercised the right they have to vote, (that’s) a huge untapped power.”
Fourth-year Ryerson psychology student Cristina Ignatenco says she did cast a ballot in the most recent municipal election, but says she doesn’t vote regularly.
“I feel like (federal politicians) put more emphasis on taxes and how to make more money for Canada and I don’t think I’m as familiar with (those) topics.”
Ignatenco, like many young people, says she’s not sure she’ll vote in the upcoming federal election.
“It depends if the parties will be addressing change in things I think are important,” she says, identifying jobs for students as an issue she’s interested in.
The federal parties, she says, don’t seem to gear their platforms toward people like her.
Ignatenco, like many young people, feels ignored by political parties — and she may be right. Toronto Star political reporter Susan Delacourt says it best in her book Shopping for Votes: “(Politicians) spend an ample amount of money figuring out exactly what citizens want, and then tailor their mandate to match. The problem is, they don’t spend this money on anyone except the people who will come out to vote for them. And that’s not young people.”
A January 2015 poll of undergraduate students at Toronto colleges and universities by Ryerson school of journalism students showed just that. When asked how they feel about the statement, “federal political parties don’t interest me,” 62 per cent of respondents said they “strongly agree,” “agree” or are “indifferent.” In response to the statement, “federal politicians are interested in hearing my concerns,” 60 per cent said they’re “not sure,” “disagree” or “strongly disagree.”
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Experts have a variety of theories for this disengagement: a rise in “clicktivism” (using social media to support a cause because it doesn’t require much effort), a sub par civics curriculum, and something called the “spectators thesis” — the idea that, having found little value in traditional political culture, young people absent themselves from it.
“Perhaps it’s because they don’t understand themselves as being, or wanting to be part of, or a reflection of, any of the governments of the day,” says James McKee, a senior researcher at EKOS Research Associates. Because of this, McKee says they “absent themselves from even the minimal forms of democratic agency and participation.” That includes voting.
Still, it doesn’t have to end badly.
“Governments are going to be far less likely to adapt for younger generations until we organize more effectively,” says Paul Kershaw, founder of Generation Squeeze, a non-profit that is building a national lobby to champion issues affecting young Canadians.
Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia, says the key is getting the parties’ attention in-between elections. “Too many of our efforts lately to try and reinvigorate democracy for younger Canadians is focused on (campaigns) like … ‘let’s rock the vote,’” Kershaw says, referring to the U.S campaign that used the likes of Lil Jon and Lena Dunham to get young people excited about voting.
“These are all happening during elections or really close to voting day. That misses all the hard work of influencing political parties and government way in advance.
“People who play politics well, they play the game years in advance of an election.”
Greg Sorbara, the former Ontario finance minister and chair of three successful Liberal campaigns, laid bare the political calculus behind courting — or not courting — the youth vote when he spoke to the same group of Ryerson students a week after their visit to Queen’s Park.
“Sure they care,” he says without hesitation, when asked if parties are concerned about young people not voting. “But they care more about winning.”