Over the past four federal elections in Canada, an average of 39% of eligible voters did not vote (source). A staggering number of our country’s citizens are choosing not to participate in the political process. Many commentators argue that apathy is severely compromising Canadian democracy.
The reasons for this are perhaps complicated, but I saw a glaring one as I read the national news this weekend. Justin Trudeau, leadership candidate for the federal Liberal Party came under fire for comments that he made in 2010 on a Quebec TV talk show, Les francs-tireurs – translated roughly to “The Straight (or frank, as in frankly) Shooters.” According to the National Post, he said: ““Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda.”
When attacked by the media and political opponents about the two-year old comment, Mr. Trudeau apologised, saying that he was really talking about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s control of Canada being negative, not about Alberta’s influence as a region.
The scenario is frequent: a politician takes a stand in Canada, is challenged on it, and retracts the stand. The political strategy in our country, for the past decade and more has been to please as many voters as possible. This approach may be destroying Canadian democracy, if it has not already.
Maybe Justin Trudeau’s comments about Alberta were short sighted or wrong, and legitimately qualified in the past few days. It is not my job to engage the issues though; I am not a politician. As a voter, I expect politicians in Canada to take stands and present the bold vision of their leadership and proposed political action. I expect them to engage real issues so that I can decide where to cast my vote.
I have not read many comparisons yet between Justin Trudeau and his father. Any comparison is probably beyond unfair, although inevitable, and the leadership race is still young. However, I would compare the approaches of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien in the respective 1980 and 1995 referenda on Quebec independence to any Canadian politician.
In 1980, Trudeau belittled the separatists. He mocked them, and used whit combined with tangible political arguments and international law to show how the concept of an independent Quebec was detrimental to Canada, itself and the survival of the French language in North America. On the side of a united Canada, Trudeau “won” the referendum 60% / 40%.
In 1995, Chrétien took a more conciliatory path. He offered concessions to the Quebec provincial government, hoping to engage Quebecers to the concept of Canada by giving in to the concept of decentralisation. There was not bold rhetoric, and the political idea that he was fighting against was allowed to flourish. The political leader did not give referendum voters a clear choice. On the side of a united Canada, Chrétien “won” the referendum by a devastatingly bare 50.58% / 49.42%.
Today, if Justin Trudeau believes in the comments he made about the socio-democratic path that Canada is on, I want to hear him justify them. When the media, or political opponents are making a politician squirm, it should be a sign that they are talking about something that is interesting and meaningful.
Too often in Canada, the reaction to pressure is to recant or spin: issues are not engaged, and clear lines are not drawn between election choices. This fuzziness helped the federal Liberal Party occupy its coveted status of Natural Governing Party of Canada for years, and the other parties have been chasing the same outcome. The Conservative Party of Canada likely seized such blurriness for one of the final times in the last federal election.
I believe Canada’s broad political blur has turned many voters away from the process itself. We think sometimes that Canadian voters don’t care about politics, or issues of national significance. When politicians are not doing their job though, we should hardly blame voters for the apathy that is crushing Canadian politics.
Politicians of Canada: if you find yourself squirming, I challenge you to keep pushing. Talk about the matter, and give your vision – not the crafted messaging of your handlers. That is how you will get my vote, and maybe even that of the elusive 39%.