Federal Election Features Lowest Voter Turnout Yet.

BACK IN THE FIRST WEEK of the federal election campaign, Liberal MP Paul Macklin was doing some door-to-door canvassing in Cobourg, Ont., when Laura Chamberlain, 18, answered the bell at a comfortable house in an upscale subdivision. She explained that her parents were out, but, when asked, said she herself was old enough to vote. That prompted Macklin to inquire about whether she had any intention of actually doing so. "Of course," she replied. "Really?" Macklin said, sounding more than a touch surprised. "Do you mind if I ask why?" Without missing a beat, she said, "Because it's my right." So the candidate made his plea for support, pressed a pamphlet into her hand, and strolled off to the next front porch with a little extra spring in his step.

If only this were a typical encounter between a politician and a young adult. In fact, Macklin, who held his Northumberland-Quinte West riding on election day, had every reason to size up Chamberlain as an unlikely voter: only about one in five of her peers in their late teens and early 20s bother to mark a ballot. That level of apathy deeply worries just about everybody who's interested in the future of Canadian democracy. And the discouraging youth participation rate is only the worst part of a generally dismal picture. Overall, voter turnout on June 28 was lower than in any federal election since John A. Macdonald triumphed in the first one in 1867. Elections Canada's preliminary figures showed 60.5 per cent of eligible voters made their way out to the polling stations, down from the previous low of 61.2 per cent, set in 2000. As recently as 1988, turnout was 75.3 per cent.

It could have been worse. Based on the downward trend in recent elections, University of Toronto political science professor Larry LeDuc, who has co-authored several reports on the issue, had predicted just 58 per cent turnout for this vote. LeDuc credits the unusually tight race with luring some less-than-committed voters away from their TVs and barbeques, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia. So this is what passes for upbeat news about Canadian democracy today: the most exciting national campaign in recent memory succeeded in slowing the slide in turnout - but didn't prevent it from dropping to an all-time low. No wonder there are so many calls for reforms aimed at restoring the public's sense that representative government matters. A stretch of minority Liberal rule should temporarily shake up the federal status quo enough to spark some renewed interest. The question is whether the more lasting changes being urged by many will finally happen - and will they make much difference?

The most discussed ideas fall into three main areas: making voting matter more, making ordinary MPs and provincial legislators more powerful and accountable, and making the democratic process mean more to youth. Taken together, it sounds sweeping, but the various initiatives in the provinces and Ottawa are uncoordinated - and it's not clear which will yield real results. One common thread, though, is debate over proportional representation - an electoral system that awards parties seats based on their share of the total vote, not just when they place first in a constituency. Those who favour introducing proportional representation, or PR as it is sometimes called, say it would go a long way to making every vote count. The Law Commission of Canada tabled the most fully fleshed-out Canadian PR proposal on March 31, a blueprint that would give small parties more House seats, and make it harder for a single party to dominate a region.

The commission, an independent federal agency that reports on law reform issues to Parliament, is calling for a "mixed member proportional" system. Two-thirds of MPs would win their seats the way they do now, in so-called first-past-the-post races in their ridings. The other third would be a new breed of MP, chosen to represent their province or territory based on the percentage of the vote their party got. Voters would be asked to choose twice on the same ballot, once for the MP who would represent their constituency, and a second time for their pick in the PR election. Commission president Nathalie Des Rosiers acknowledges such a ballot would be more complex than Canadian voters are used to, but she argues they would soon get the hang of it. "Canadians understand some very complex rules in hockey pools," she says.

Des Rosiers says the advantages of this sort of mixed system are too compelling to ignore. There would still be local representation. But parties would gain PR seats in provinces where they now elect few or no MPs - think more Liberals from Alberta, some Tories from Quebec - so the House would become less regionally split. At the same time, smaller parties, especially the NDP, would see their seat totals rise to nearer their share of the total vote, while struggling newer parties, such as the Greens, would find a place at the political grown-ups table sooner. The wider range of MPs would mean more voters would see their preferences reflected in Parliament. But it would also lead to more minority results - prompting predictable qualms inside the party most accustomed to winning majorities. "In the Liberal party," says Des Rosiers, "I think the fear of minority government runs deep."

Which is why there's next to no chance of Ottawa leading the way on proportional representation, even with Jack Layton's NDP pushing the concept. More likely is a scenario where bold moves by a few provinces end up influencing federal reforms down the line. "It may be that we're going to be able to benefit from those provincial experiences," says Scott Reid, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Paul MARTIN. Quebec's Liberal government is expected to table legislation this fall that would introduce a mixed PR system to the province's National Assembly. In British Columbia, the innovative Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform is scheduled to deliver a landmark report to the B.C. government by Dec. 15. The assembly held 50 public hearings in May and June, and PR was frequently touted as a way to combat voter apathy, so some version of it seems likely to make its way into those final recommendations. Whatever change the assembly proposes - and it's a safe assumption it won't advocate sticking with the status quo - is slated to be put to a province-wide referendum next May.

Assembly chair Jack Blaney, a former Simon Fraser University president, says its work should serve as an antidote to skepticism about the capacity of average citizens to take on the real work of democracy. Its 160 members, from all walks of life, were drawn from a pool of 15,800 randomly selected names off the B.C. voters list. Blaney says convening such a group to come up with solutions on a major policy issue has never been tried anywhere in the world - at least not since ancient Athens. In fact, the assembly's influence may turn out to come as much from the way it has done its job as the report it produces at the end. "You want to reduce cynicism?" Blaney says. "Just engage citizens in a direct way."

While the assembly might inspire future experiments in participatory democracy, nobody is advocating doing away with the representative type just yet. And that leaves the challenge of combatting the widespread view that ordinary MPs and MLAs are mere pawns in a game dominated by prime ministers, premiers, unelected aides and faceless mandarins. On this front, Ottawa has already shown signs of progress. In the few months he governed before the election, Martin made free votes in the House far more routine. As well, MPs on committees got more chances to shape legislation, not just review and rubber-stamp laws sent their way by cabinet ministers. And as part of his response to the sponsorship affair, Martin handed House committees a new role in reviewing senior appointments to Crown corporations, previously an unfettered patronage power of prime ministers. How far he goes in making good on a vow to let MPs also review Supreme Court of Canada appointments - there are currently two vacancies - will be widely watched as another measure of rising backbench clout.

Looking for new ways to vote for politicians, giving more real power to those elected representatives - these sorts of reforms are easy compared with the more basic problem of creating engaged citizens. The demographic signs of a slide toward passivity are clear: in the 2000 election, 80 per cent of those aged 58-67 voted, 66 per cent of those 38-47, and just 22 per cent of 18- to 20-year-olds. There's no easy explanation. Henry Milner, a visiting fellow at Montreal's Institute for Research on Public Policy, and an author of books on the ways people behave in democracies, points to troubling trends, such as rising "TV dependency," supplanting the newspaper reading habit that he argues is a sign of healthier civic societies. And Milner rejects the case often made by youth leaders that many potential younger voters are not really so uninformed and apathetic, but opt not to vote out of dissatisfaction with the political choices. "The number of young people who are engaged politically but decide not to vote is untraceable," he says. "That's not the problem."

Milner calls for a major push in teaching high-school students to be better citizens. He even suggests the novel idea of giving 16-year-olds the vote, but only in provinces that make a civics class compulsory at that age. Ontario has a mandatory civics class, a half-credit Grade 10 course introduced in 2000, but most provinces try to incorporate citizenship education into history or social studies curricula. Education experts are divided on the efficacy of trying to inculcate democratic behaviour in special classes. (In 2002, Britain introduced compulsory citizenship education up to age 16, but results so far have been mixed as schools struggle to meet the new requirements.)

Still, with Canadian society producing ever fewer voters, turning to the schools for at least part of the solution may be an idea whose time has come. Asked what made her so sure she wanted to vote, Laura Chamberlain said her high-school civics class was one possible reason, though she put more emphasis on her parents' influence. Interviewed after the election, she said she went out and voted, even though she found much of the campaign, especially the parties' TV ads, "confusing and repetitive." Chamberlain is off to her first year at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., this fall, with the ambition of becoming a teacher. There's hope yet.


Denmark PR 87%

Italy Mixed 81%

Sweden PR 80%

Austria PR 80%

Netherlands PR 79%

Germany Mixed 79%

New Zealand Mixed 77%

Norway PR 75%

Greece PR 75%

Spain PR 70%

Finland PR 65%

Portugal PR 63%

Japan Mixed 61%

Canada Plurality 60.5%

India Plurality 60%

Britain Plurality 59%

United States Plurality 51%

Switzerland PR 43%

PR: proportional representation

Plurality: first past the post

Mixed: combination of systems

Turnout data for lower house of legislature (or U.S. presidential election) from the most recent election to Dec. 31, 2002; Canadian numbers updated with 2004 results.

Sources: Larry LeDuc and Jon Pammett, "Elections and Participation: The Meanings of the Turnout Decline," June 1, 2003; Elections Canada


Maclean's July 19, 2004