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Allowing youths to cast mock ballots could be a counterweight to low turnout and political shenanigans

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the declining electoral participation rate, in particular the historically low turnout rate in the Ontario election just finished.

This isn’t just an issue for political science academics. It is a problem for all of us, as it threatens the very legitimacy of our governments.

So here is a suggestion: at every polling station, why don’t we set up a box for children to deposit their votes, right next to the official ballot box? Of course, those “votes” would not contribute to the outcome of the election. Rather, they would allow those below the official voting age to begin to understand the importance of voting, and to build an inculcated habit of doing so.

You wouldn’t be able to walk to the polling station with your child without having discussed the election at the dinner table, or in the car when you were driving them to their dance recital.

By the time election day arrived, children would be well acquainted with the issues and the responsibility of voting in a free and democratic society.

Now, this is an idea that I have advanced for years with a spectacular lack of success.

Several objections have been raised to the idea. For example, my own political tribe, the Conservatives, object to it because they think the kids will be brainwashed by left-leaning teachers.

Others argue it would be much easier to just mandate voting and issue fines for nonparticipation, as Australia and others do. Philosophically, I think this idea is rubbish. Surely, thoughtful education and encouragement should trump punishment wherever possible.

Bureaucratic officials say it will be prohibitively expensive to implement. Simply put, this is nonsense. But after all, these objections come from Elections Canada, who can’t even currently administer accessible voting for communities across the country, especially Indigenous ones. All of which points to the feebleness of the bureaucracy. A feebleness which impedes the ability for creative ideas to solve the important challenges before us — challenges which strike at the very core of our democracy.

Efforts have been made to solve this problem. Taylor Gunn at CIVIX and his Student Vote program are doing remarkable work, getting over 260,000 young students to vote in a recent mock youth provincial election. But it isn’t the same.

For decades, Sweden has made mock youth elections an integral part of its democratic process. The country has a remarkably high level of participation, and has continued to strengthen its youth election program in recent years. The latest Swedish election in 2018 saw the highest turnout in 33 years.

To be fair, it’s still unclear how much of that trend can be attributed to youth ballots. Regardless, what the Swedes realize is that the program is key to educating people about democratic principles and engendering politics with a long-term purpose. The experiences of putting serious consideration into politics from a young age — and of being able to see how those considerations might play out several times over before going to the ballot box for real — are invaluable. What’s more, they specifically focus their program on socio-economically disadvantaged areas known for endemic disenfranchisement, something we have a real problem with in Canada.

As any parent will know, no one is better at inspiring good conduct and shaming bad behaviour than their children. I think a democratic equivalent of the campaign to stop smoking or texting while driving will incentivize adults to do better. Children’s frankness might help stipulate against the shenanigans that have crept into our system and turned Canadians off voting.

No longer would there be room for the civically disengaged parent who can’t adequately respond to their child’s new-found political curiosity. Hopefully, it would also give our democracy a longer-term horizon, and encourage our competing politicians to finally prioritize purpose over pugilism.

We are now firmly in the claws of a bear market. The government must prepare people for hardship

Four days remain until the House of Commons rises, and politicians trot back to their constituencies to hit the infamous summer BBQ circuit. While they will surely be grateful for the break, anxiety about a litany of economic harbingers will surely cloud their summer mood.

We are now firmly in the claws of a bear market. For some time, it’s been clear that we are experiencing severe structural inflation, the worst in four decades. Economists may disagree over whether we are heading for a recession, but all seem to agree that short-term pain will be required if we are to get out of this mess.

The federal government now finds itself in unchartered waters. By the prime minister’s own admission, they are not a government overly concerned with monetary policy. And as Thursday’s announcement of another spending package of $8.9 billion shows, they are short of any ideas that don’t involve throwing more money at crises.

But they have another set of problems.

Canadians both expect economic woes to continue, and for governments — especially the federal government — to do something about it.

The latest round of public opinion research by our firm Navigator revealed that nine in 10 Canadians say they are affected by inflation. What’s more, they are pessimistic about the near term, with eight in 10 expecting inflation to rise over the next year.

Crucially, eight in 10 people believe the federal government can reduce inflation — a tough act to follow with so many remedial structural factors beyond the government’s control.

That said, there are tools available to the feds. The idea that people’s behaviour can influence macroeconomic trends used to be considered pseudo-science, yet recent experience has demonstrated the power of good communication and expectation-setting in policy-making.

The 2008 crisis proved the power of economic irrationality, after millions of mortgages were approved without proof of income. Consequently, “nudge theory” — a concept popularized by economist Richard Thaler — rose to prominence among policymakers and new acolytes of behavioural economics.

Nudge theory proposes that indirect reinforcement can influence the decision-making of groups or individuals. Examples include policies to cut down on smoking or plastic consumption.

Our government has experience successfully nudging people’s behaviour. After all, with only warnings and incentives, they were able to garner almost unanimous compliance with lockdown measures.

The nudge concept works alongside another key principle of behavioural economics: loss aversion. The loss aversion principle states that the pain of losing is psychologically far more powerful than the pleasure of gaining. Now is a crucial moment for the government to convey the dangers of our current economic reality, nudge behaviour where it can and manage expectations around loss.

First, the government must avoid panic and a loss of faith in its ability to steer through the storm. An illustrative example comes from Japan. In 1997, during the Asian financial crisis and an abrupt contraction of the economy, long lines began to appear outside major banks. The financial system teetered on the edge. But instead of proliferating, the lines were short-lived and the crisis was averted, as a deliberate lack of media interest and clear government statements reassured citizens.

This summer, the government will have to accept people’s expectations that inflation will continue to be bad, nudge their behaviour in a way that cools the economy in line with central bank measures, and shift expectations away from government to reverse these overarching trends — all while managing the risk of recession.

The government must prepare people for hardship, so when it comes it isn’t unexpected or as bad as first thought. How they communicate inflation, with a view to affecting people’s behaviour, will be just as important as any policy decision.

It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but as behavioural economist Dan Ariely once asked, “Wouldn’t economics make a lot more sense if it were based on how people actually behave, instead of how they should behave?”

Dodgy tricks turn voters off politics — and no party has a monopoly on bad behaviour

As the Ontario campaign ads finally fall silent and much of the political rhetoric takes a pause, there is now time, on all sides of the political aisle, for some thoughtful introspection. I hope each of us reflects on the corrosive influence divisive partisanship, hyperbole and ambush politics have had on our collective confidence in our precious system.

Reflection is important because this behaviour is not benign. The proof? More Ontarians than ever stayed home on election night. This month’s provincial election had a record low turnout of 43 per cent. Looking to point a finger for that result? Well, there is more than enough blame to go around: pundits, reporters, media (conventional, new and social), partisan political actors, and the citizens themselves all played a role.

Long-term trust in our system has been actively traded away for a need to achieve short-term wins. Just as many lament the cost of short-termism on Bay Street, so do I lament its toll on our public life.

Unofficial election results indicated that, compared to the 2018 election, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and the NDP respectively received approximately 413,000 and 818,000 fewer votes this time.

Now all parties are guilty of less-than-stellar behaviour, to be sure. How many times have you heard someone say, “If I conducted myself like that in my workplace, I’d be sacked by lunchtime,” when speaking of behaviour in the legislature?

Many will recall the PC government’s overzealous use of clapping staffers; Steven Del Duca’s focus on phoney PC scandals during the writ period, which culminated with their embarrassing “gravy train” announcement; and Andrea Horwath’s promotion of misinformation about OHIP delisting, which came on the heels of her decision to break agreed-upon COVID-19 protocols in the Ontario legislature in an attempt to vote down government legislation.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that these are the kinds of dodgy political tricks that turn voters off politics.

Now, there is a structural answer to where all this comes from. In political offices, at all orders of government right across the country, you will find the same thing. More opposition researchers and proverbial spin doctors than policy wonks. More people working on the taxpayers’ dime to play silly buggers than to responsibly develop and advance new policy ideas.

Parliaments — founded as deliberative and thoughtful assemblies, places for civil debate and the exchange of ideas — have become circus tents with political theatre, half-truths and personal political attacks in the centre ring.

Like a misplaced gamble on a unicorn stock, the cost of this buffoonery has been the legitimacy and relevance of our democratic systems.

Too often, our elected officials are now forced to focus their efforts on protecting themselves from political punches, rather than talking about the issues that matter most — the cost of living, health care, and housing affordability. Not to mention jobs and the economy. In short, the very issues that got them into power.

So, what to do? For starters, we could professionalize the “political staffer class.” The province’s integrity commissioner, for example, found that political staffers are undertrained and desperate for help.

Not to knock political aides — they are some of the hardest-working people in the country — but our politicians would be better served by staff with experience not just inside politics, but from outside as well.

That’s only the beginning. Politicians need to learn to resist what is currently an insatiable urge to knock their opponents down whenever they can, and think instead about their role in protecting the health of our system for the long run. They need to realize that partisan political blinders really are damaging. That they have, as elected officials, a higher duty.

After all, politics not only can be better — it needs to be better. For all of us.

Now What? (W/ Jeff Costen and Kim Wright)

This week, host Amanda Galbraith speaks with Navigator Associate Principal and Liberal strategist Jeff Costen and NDP strategist Kim Wright on what’s next for the Ontario Liberal and NDP parties after a disappointing performance in the Provincial Election. With both of their leaders resigned, and in the case of the Liberals, official party status still out of reach, how will the parties rebuild?

The Push Back: Ford Nation 2.0, An Open Door for Advocacy

Having secured a second majority, Premier Doug Ford must now turn his attention during the summer to a fresh agenda for his government over the next four years.

As we noted previously, despite the PCs’ big electoral success, this was an election in which the opposition parties failed to make the case for change and articulate a clear ballot box question. Coupled with low voter turnout, such ingredients are a recipe for success for the incumbent.

Stay Positive

After the election, Navigator fielded some post-election polling questions to get a sense of what Ontario voters are expecting of their new government.

When asked about whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the future under a Ford government, Ontarians are surprisingly evenly split on whether a second mandate will be better or worse for them and their families. The low voter turnout means it will be a short honeymoon for Premier Ford’s second term.

To prove his critics wrong, the Ford government must now develop a positive, forward-looking agenda for addressing the campaign’s main issue of affordability as well as driving a strong economic recovery and overall growth post-pandemic. Delivering on the PCs’ promise to cut the gas tax is still high on the list for many Ontarians given recent price hikes at the pump.

Top of mind for Ontario voters is the need for the Ford government to hire more health care workers and clear the surgeries backlog in the wake of the pandemic. There is a perception that they have not taken as much action on these fronts as others where the PCs have clearly communicated progress (e.g. building transit and highways, signing a child care deal with the federal government).

Affordability and Inflation

With inflation reaching a 30-year high of 6.8 per cent in April, affordability is king on the political scene. In our research, we found more than 81 per cent of Canadians are saying that inflation has affected their buying decisions and most expect the problem to only get worse.

Has Inflation Affected Buying Decisions?

Expectations of Inflation

Despite this being a top campaign issue, Ontarians have very low confidence in the government’s ability to do anything about the problem. Just 16 per cent of voters said they were confident that the PCs could effectively deal with the problem.

With inflation expected to continue and the World Bank using the dreaded “r” word, the Ford government will have its work cut out in finding ways to bring more relief to people’s pocketbooks and shield families from the impacts of any potential downturn while trying to advance its fiscal responsibility agenda.

Profiling the New Legislature

New Members, Possible New Cabinet Ministers?

When the Ontario legislature returns, there will be several new faces in the PC caucus. The PCs have expanded its majority by eight seats as of June 2; however, veteran cabinet ministers Christine Elliott and Rod Philipps having opted not to run for re-election. Ford must now consider which of the existing cabinet ministers should be moved into new portfolios and whether any of the new MPPs with notable resumes should be elevated to cabinet to help balance regional diversity.

Here are our picks for who to watch among the new faces at Queen’s Park:

  • Timmins Mayor George Pirie flipped the riding for the PC Party, earning a whopping 65 per cent of the vote and defeating sitting NDP MPP Gilles Bisson. As a former mining executive and mayor of a big town in Ontario’s north, Pirie is also a candidate Ford personally recruited over a multi-year period.
  • City Councillor Chamaine Williams won the riding of Brampton Centre, defeating NDP deputy leader Sara Singh. In 2018, Williams became the first Black woman to be elected to Brampton’s city council and would bring needed diversity to the PC cabinet.
  • Todd McCarthy, a corporate litigator and Deputy Judge, was elected in Durham – maintaining the all-important 905 riding for the PC party. Since his nomination, he has been viewed as a star candidate and an important individual to keep an eye on.
  • Anthony Leardi, a former lawyer and Deputy Mayor of Amherstburg, clinched a PC win from the NDP incumbent in a region Ford has long had his eye on and will be looking to consolidate gains. Leardi served for 13 years as a federal agent for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and acts as a guest lecturer for the Ontario Law Society.

A Quiet Opposition

In an unprecedented move, both NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca resigned on election night. Since then, the opposition parties have been quiet – making no real attempts to attract media attention or advocate for specific policy priorities. Over the coming weeks and months, expect various candidates and potential candidates to come forward as they contemplate leadership bids.

The NDP and Liberals will also turn their attention to appointing interim leaders, listening to defeated candidates and Ontarians to better understand the outcome of this past election, and ultimately make a call on when to choose to leader. There are also rumblings of a potential merger of the NDP and Liberals to improve their electoral chances, but the idea seems unlikely giving the historical rivalries between the two parties.

Once an interim leader is chosen, the NDP will look to appoint critics to shadow Ford’s new cabinet. Lacking official party status, the Liberals are expected to once again play a minor role in the legislature as they conduct deep soul-searching on the June 2 results.

A Legislature that Looks Like Ontario?

In a step backwards, the returning legislature is actually less diverse than the set of MPPs voters sent to Queen’s Park in 2018. Despite three of the major parties nominating more than 50 per cent women, gender diversity is actually down slightly among elected MPPs. Just 47 of the 124 seats in this legislature will be represented by women, down slightly from 2018 when women filled 49 seats.
With respect to racial diversity, Ontarians who are Black, Indigenous or persons of colour account for just 22.5 per cent of seats. While this lags behind the 29.3 per cent of Ontarians who self-identify as being from a visible minority, it is a significant improvement from governments elected as recently as a decade ago.

Setting the Table

In the notorious words of Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell during the 1993 election, the last few weeks have shown that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.” The 2022 election was sleepy and lacked meaningful engagement on issues. Now that the election is over, Ontario’s new government will have to face the music on a few critical files requiring heavy lifts.

Clearing the Surgeries Backlog

The immense stress that the pandemic put on the health care system has delayed non-essential health services and created a seemingly insurmountable backlog. As of two weeks ago, the Ontario Medical Association reported that there is currently a backlog of 22 million health services, including one million surgeries.

In his previous mandate, Premier Ford got the ball rolling on dealing with the backlog and called on the federal government to increase its share of health care funding. At one point, the PC government looked at the backlog of surgeries where there was the most urgent need and issued a call for independent health facilities (IHFs) to step up to address the problem, starting with cataract surgeries. We can expect the government to take a further look at what other surgeries would benefit from such calls.

Build, Build, Build

While the Liberals and NDP tried to wedge the PCs on this issue, our research showed 45 per cent of Ontarians supported the contentious Highway 413, with an even higher rate of support in the 905 (57 per cent). Ford and the PCs argued that this highway was necessary to save commuters time. This promise bore fruits on election night when the PCs swept the 905, including three pickups from the NDP in Brampton. Now that the election is behind us, the Ford government will undoubtedly want to “get it done” and start building the highway, along with other important projects, such as its GTA Subway Plan and Highway 417 expansion. The Ford government will also further continue its work to expand broadband, committing $4 billion over the next six years.

Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Agreements

With all the talk this past year was about whether students would be attending classes in-person or virtually, many forgot that there is a chance that there might not be classes at all for some students this fall. The collective agreements with all four of the major teacher unions in Ontario expire on August 31. That gives this government a relatively short runway to ensure that Ontario does not see any class cancellations like it did in late 2019 and early 2020. The government will want to avoid strikes or “work-to-rule” actions, where teachers only perform the tasks that are described in their official work responsibilities. This means that they would no longer perform non-essential work like report card comments, after school academic support or extracurricular activities. At a time when many parents feel that their children are behind because of the difficulties of learning during COVID, anything short of a deal being struck before the end of August would be a serious risk to the government.

Beer Store Contract Renewal

The Master Framework Agreement (MFA), a contract by the provincial government given to the Beer Store in 2015, expires in 2025. The Beer Store is owned by three brewers, Molson Coors (50.9%), Labbatt (44.9%) and Sleeman (4.2%). When the PCs took office in 2018, this agreement was initially threatened by Premier Ford’s commitment to liberalize beer and wine sales, including allowing the sale of these products in corner stores. After tense negotiations, the government passed but did not bring into force the Bringing Choice and Fairness to the People Act in 2019 and threatened to rip up the agreement.

Although there are still a couple of years until the agreement lapses, negotiations of this magnitude take months, if not years, to negotiate, so this is likely to become a pertinent issue to be addressed sooner than later. We can expect the Ford government will continue to liberalize alcohol sales wherever possible over the next few years.

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