The huge boost in voter turnout during the last federal election didn’t materialize into increased political engagement, according to a new report by a civic engagement think-tank.
Samara Canada’s 2017 Democracy 360 Report, which looks at the relationship between citizens and political leaders, concluded that Canadians are casual about political activity outside of elections and the author of the study says it’s largely due to low levels of trust in elected officials.
“Canadians’ attitudes of satisfaction with government has been on a downward trajectory for the last thirty years, the same with voter turnout, minus last election,” says Samara CEO Jane Hilderman.
Not even the momentum that swept Justin Trudeau into office in 2015 could ignite Canadians’ political enthusiasm. The excitement surrounding high voter turnout didn’t amount to much, as only a third of Canadians say they engage in formal political activities like belonging to or donating to a party.
“I was shocked that the growth in voter turnout didn’t translate into political action for people,” says Hilderman. “This is really troubling.”
The percentage of people who voted in the last federal election hit a 20-year high, but that doesn’t mean Canadians are less suspicious of those they elected into office.
The report revealed that fewer than half of Canadians trust MPs and parties “to do what’s right,” compared with 60 per cent who said they believed parliamentarians’ only motivation was snatching votes.
Hilderman said there was a small boost in approval since Samara’s 2015 survey, but the overwhelming finding remained that Canadians aren’t content with the country’s political system.
Even with the minor bump Canadians are getting fed up, says Bill Cross, a political science professor at Carleton University.
“The frustration comes when people think politicians don’t keep their word,” he said. “They promise to do something, then do something else.”
The Trudeau government has been criticized over the past two months for abandoning the campaign promise of electoral reform in early February.
Cross explained it’s these broken promises that are the mistake, because people attribute the breach to the politician’s own self-interest.
While the current discontent may cost the current government an election, Hilderman warns it could get more serious and the tipping point isn’t far off.
“It’s getting to the point where people will reject the system and refuse to participate.”
She predicts that people will eventually stop voting. Avoiding this threat is one of the reasons the Ministry of Democratic Institutions exists.
“Public trust in our institutions is vital for good governance,” said Minister Karina Gould. “This (department) is an opportunity for citizens to be actively engaged with their governments.”
But according to the report, Canadians don’t share the minister’s eagerness.
Gould added that citizens are putting increased pressure on the government to be more transparent, meaning there is a troubling horizon of civic disengagement that parliament must address.
“There’s been a change in how we think of our institutions, there’s a declining sense of duty towards participation,” agrees Hilderman.
A study by the Environics Institute found that the majority of Canadians feel the federal government is broken, which it attributed largely to a lack of consulting with citizens.
About 70 per cent of Canadians said they worried that political parties could be tampering with elections, eerily reminiscent of recent fears of fraud that permeated the presidential race south of the border, though there’s no evidence there was any fraud.
The Environics report concluded that government approval ratings have increased modestly since 2014. Though the approval ratings for parliament remain low, almost all Canadians reported they were satisfied with the current functionality of Canadian democracy.
“The gap in democracy approval versus elected official approval is positive, because it means citizens can see that they are two separate things,” said Hilderman.
Shifting the tone of the conversation from politicians to democracy is key, she says. The report makes several recommendations on how to do this, including increasing education about politics in classrooms and making parliament more diverse.
“Political activity needs to be an undertaking of people’s entire lives, not just one class in high school,” said Hilderman. “We need to make our politics more inclusive.”
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