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The Politics of Apathy: What Canadians and Canadian Physicians Need to Know

Editorial Assistance: Anya Archer

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” ―Abraham Lincoln

fig 1
a country so perfect in its vision, balance and stability that there was no need for citizens to vote.

Imagine a University on such a clear course that the faculty can delegate direction to administrators.

In the recent Ontario Provincial election, which created a Liberal majority government, almost half of eligible voters did not vote. The election occurred at a critical moment in Ontario’s history. In 2009 Ontario became a have not province and recipient of provincial equalization funds. It has a dwindling industrial base and a 7.4% unemployment rate. One might think the election would be of more than passing interest. The once glorious engine of Canada was in need of a re-haul, or at least an oil change. It was not quite time for an Ayn Randian departure to the Hidden Valley, but Ontario was clearly facing some important choices. Then the clouds opened, the sun shone…the people were offered a chance to change the situation and perhaps create a new direction for the province. An election was called, and only 52% of eligible voters bothered to vote! Many Ontarians could not identify party leaders, let alone identify the party’s key policies. This turnout is surprising given that the choice was between a scandal-ridden Liberal party – with enough skeletons to require construction of ancillary closets – and a Conservative party which had a “Go East to Go West” approach to creating jobs by beginning the job creation charge by eliminating 100,000 government jobs.

The anemic turnout suggests either that we believe we have achieved governmental nirvana, have decided that there are no consequences of abstaining from voting or are so preoccupied with watching HGTV that we forgot to vote! Whatever the explanation, We the People clearly do not feel the need to vote. Before proceeding how about a PSA test?

What’s Your PSA*? 

*Political Savvy Assessment

Simply match the key platform plank to the person:

Person                                    Platform

A) Kathleen Wynne                ______ Appoint a Minister of Savings and Accountability

B) Tim Hudak                         ______ Make it Right

C) Andrea Horwath                 ______ Million Jobs Plan

D) Mike Holmes                     ______ Investing in people (while walking with purpose)

For those that like quizzes the answer is C,D,B,A (and I had to look “C “up).

If you scored 4/4 congrats; if you got 2/4 your PSA needs some work…

This uninspiring show of democratic ennui reminded me to remind friends and colleagues in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHD) at Queen’s University to turn out and vote in an upcoming Clinical Teachers Association at Queen’s (CTAQ) election. Lest I forget my message as I rant about the consequences of low voter turnout for the fibre of a province, country or faculty….here is my reminder: The upcoming CTAQ election, which starts on Wednesday June 25 (DOM faculty: watch your email for an electronic ballot) will elect a colleague to sit as member at large. A subsequent election will be held to elect a member to sit on the Governor’s Committee that guides our Practice Plan. I am a member of this committee and want a motivated colleague who has the support of her or his colleagues to join this important group. Although we have a good democratic tradition of the Department of Medicine recent events outside the University suggest, one cannot assume the people will act in their best interests and vote!

Charlie Gillis of McLean’s magazine used the following anecdote to illustrate the apathetic and ill informed zeitgeist of Canadians voters in 2014:

fig 8.tiff

 -Charlie Gillis, Blame the Nerds for Low Voter Turnout, McLeans Magazine June 9, 2014

I suspect that Mr. Gillis is correct. In the year of our Confederation, 1867, 73.1% of newly minted Canadians (there were only 3.23 million of us) voted.

fig 2Sadly, it’s been downhill from there. The Conference Board of Canada notes that only 53.8% of adult Canadians voted in the 2011 federal election; the second-lowest turnout in history. They attribute this, in part, to young people not voting. In 2011, only 38.8% of the population aged 18 to 24 voted.

In many countries, voting is mandatory. Take the case of Australia. In the 1920s turnout was an anemic 47%. Then came a 1924 compulsory voting law. Since then, voter turnout has hovered between 94% to 96%.

Why worry about low turnout? Some apatheticons (my word) consider the choice to be a non-choice: why vote for Tweedle Dee versus Tweedle Dum? This is false reasoning. There are certain factions in the population, usually motivated by ideology, who will ALWAYS show up. This encourages political candidates to tailor their campaigns to those who will likely vote. When politicians are forced to answer to ideologues, campaigns are often over before they begin. These high contrast campaigns cause parties to select candidates who can pass litmus tests that define electability.

fig 5One of things Canadians can learn from the USA is the consequence of not “getting out the vote”. A recent case illustrates several points in this regard. Eric Cantor (right), house majority leader (Republican), ostensibly lost to an unknown Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat, on the basis of his platform. Brat said Cantor was too soft on immigrants and democrats. However, the case is clear, Cantor did not understand the game he was playing in. He was engaged in a battle in a district where almost no one votes and when a subtle change in that low turnout occurred, he was ill-prepared. Turnout in Virginia’s 7th on Tuesday was at 13.7%. Shockingly, no other congressional primary even got 10 percent of eligible voters to the polls!

Ezra Klein summarized the situation as follows, “If the results point to one clear culprit, it’s Cantor’s campaign — and, in particular, his polling and get-out-the-vote operations. Cantor almost certainly had more than 36,000 supporters in his district. But he didn’t turn more than 36,000 of his supporters out to the polls. He may not have even known he needed to worry about how many of his supporters would go to the polls. The Washington Post reports that “as late as Tuesday morning, Cantor had felt so confident of victory that he spent the morning at a Starbucks on Capitol Hill, holding a fundraising meeting with lobbyists while his constituents went to the polls.”

fig 4That couldn’t happen in Canada could it? Polls suggest that the upcoming Toronto mayoral election may not end the Rob Ford Fiasco in Toronto. Despite dereliction of duty and on the job crack use, one third of voters (32 per cent) still support the embattled mayor. Will the majority of Torontonians join the Ford Nation at the polls? If not …we may see Ford returned as mayor.

In the Department of Medicine at Queen’s University we are encouraging a culture of participation which we refer to as citizenship. In fact, we attribute 5% of physician income to citizenship activities: attending rounds, serving on committees etc. We have begun voting on proposed major policy changes. When we voted on the modifications to our Practice Plan on December 2, 2013, 80% of eligible physicians voted. The Practice Plan debate was contentious and there were strong views at both extremes of the spectrum: heavy taxes vs. laissez faire. However, the discussion led to moderation in the policies proposed and the heavy voter turnout ensured that a moderate solution was achieved. It also gave members ownership for the final plan.

To conclude, I offer four modest suggestions to enhance voter turnout in Canadian elections:

1)    Make civics a core part of education:In 2007, Henry Milner of the Institute for Research on Public Policy discovered that among Canadians aged 15-25, a large majority could not correctly identify even the most basic facts about Canadian and international politics. Sadly, Ontario high schools only devote half a semester to Civics. Or to quote Gore Vidal on the value of an educated populace: Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half.

2)    There’s an app for that: It’s 2014 and we are voting by dragging a pencil across a piece of paper…where is Steve Jobs when you need him? I am pleased to see that CTAQ has accepted electronic voting.

3)    Le Weekend: How about weekend voting? Better still; put the booth at Canadian Tire. We should make voting as easy as possible.fig 9

4)    Mandatory voting: Perhaps we need to learn from countries like Australia and ensure that voting is mandatory. If there is no good candidate, one can spoil the ballot in protest, but at least every voice is heard.

So unless you believe that we live in a perfect democracy, that we work at a perfect university or unless you believe that Mike Holmes will swing by and Make it Right…remember:

Your vote counts.

This is your University

This is your country.

2 Responses to The Politics of Apathy: What Canadians and Canadian Physicians Need to Know

  1. Fred Laflamme says:

    Soggy greetings from PEI this Morning, Stephen.

    Well written, edited and particularly well assisted!

    Compulsory voting can be somewhat controversial although decidedly effective as proven in places like Australia and Belgium. In support of your first point re: civics, another theory which has been advanced as perhaps a workable approach in this country would be to make electoral participation compulsory for first-time voters only. These young voters would be mandated only to “turn out” and would also be provided with a “none of the above” option. Apparently, the suggested logic behind this thinking is that people who vote in the first election for which they are eligible, are considerably more likely to continue voting throughout their lives. Obligating new electors to get out and vote once (and early in their young lives) would go a long way towards establishing the “participaction” habit and help arrest the non – voting inertia that seems otherwise to have taken a generational grip.
    A not-too-insignificant corollary benefit accompanying such a measure is that it would force politicians to address the wants and needs of new and different sectors of an up and coming electorate and develop actions that are aligned with that electorate.
    Trust all is well with you, Kathie and the family. Will we see you down this way next month?



  2. Dear Fred: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I suspect if they were instituted some Canadian cities might be run by “Mr None of the Above”. Looking forward to seeing you and Mary in the Cradle of Confederation in Mid-August-will be touch …SA

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Dr. Archer, Dept. Head
Dr. Archer, Dept. Head