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Here’s how to get kids excited about voting

Here is a useful suggestion for a vexing problem of voter engagement and specifically 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.

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.

Taking on incumbents is never easy — it usually isn’t a fair fight

From the get-go, it usually isn’t a fair fight. Most times, incumbency gives government a significant advantage as it seeks another mandate — a benefit that was on stunning display on election night in Ontario.

Incumbency provided the opportunity to present a pre-election budget which dangled all kinds of goodies, available only after a vote to return the Progressive Conservatives to office. It granted the ability to exploit the “rallying around the flag” effect from the pandemic and to dominate the news cycles for more than two years, effectively relegating opposition leaders to the sidelines.

Ontario’s campaign mirrored the last federal one, in which Justin Trudeau’s incumbent Liberal government was re-elected thanks to the failure of opposition campaigns to land any meaningful ideological blows or compete with an engorged government.

The dismal results from the efforts of Steven Del DucaAndrea Horwath, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh might well lead one to conclude that opposition politics in Canada has become a fool’s errand. But that would be a mistake. Provincially, at least, the opposition should have been able to frame the election as a referendum on the affordability crisis, a crisis which is taking hold in every home in the province. That alone should have provided them with an effective conduit for harnessing public resentment.

But they failed, and failed miserably. The estimated 14-point drop in turnout is damning evidence that the opposition campaigns were completely ineffective in convincing Ontarians it was time to say “yes” to an alternative.

However, don’t assume the past is prologue. In fact, the race for the leadership of the federal Conservative party signals that things might be changing.

Friday was the last day to sign up members in that race. In the final week, the party rushed to hire extra staff; sales were tracking to smash previous records with estimates of an influx of roughly 400,000 new members, compared to the 269,469 memberships sold the last time.

Getting people to not just support but to join a party is an accomplishment in itself, and in this case, I believe it’s proof something is up. I think it shows that candidates in that race, Pierre Poilievre especially, are effectively harnessing the anger, disillusionment and sense of disconnection felt by many Canadians.

Now to the next phase. With the book closed on new member sales, it is time for each candidate to articulate bold new policy ideas that will form the basis of a platform that will keep Canadians saying both “no” to the incumbent Liberals and “yes” to a rejuvenated Conservative Party of Canada.

Regardless of who wins, the new leader will spend the next three years taking on a government that’s expert at using policy to achieve its political aims. For proof, you need to look no further than its decision to wait to roll out ready-made, preordained gun control legislation deliberately on the heels of a horrific mass shooting in the United States.

That said, it is a government long in the tooth, and one that’s experiencing waning popularity. While support for the Conservatives is encouraging, for that support to hold this leadership race needs to focus less on posturing and more on policy than it has done so far. Candidates now need to show they are the one who can develop the tools necessary to compete with a resource-rich incumbent and win.

Mercifully, there’s lots to work with. They can start with the bleak economic outlook and a policy orientation which, by the admission of former finance minister Bill Morneau himself, is focused more on wealth redistribution than on creating prosperity.

Taking on incumbents is never easy. To win, the new Conservative leader will need to be relentless in putting on offer a path to a brighter, better future for all Canadians. It is simply not enough to be, as former U.S. vice president Spiro Agnew once remarked, “a nattering nabob of negativism.”