Political engagement 101

Myth surrounding youth apathy needs to be ‘exploded,’ Michael Ignatieff says

Michael Ignatieff speaks to students about political engagement in Macdonald Hall yesterday.
Michael Ignatieff speaks to students about political engagement in Macdonald Hall yesterday.

Online campaigns and schmoozing with pop stars may be the way some politicians attract younger voters, but according to Michael Ignatieff, it’s not going get to the heart of the problem.

“There’s a lot of myths about the disengagement of the younger generation and I want to explode those myths,” he said.

Voter turnout may be low among younger generations, but the reasons behind their low turnout aren’t unique.

“Younger people stay away from federal politics or provincial politics for all the same reasons that older people stay away.” A lack of inspirational leaders, an overwhelming feeling of partisanship dividing the political scene and an absence of real issues being discussed drive people away from political participation, he said, rather than a lack of interest.

On Wednesday, the outspoken academic and Liberal MP told the Journal he wanted use his time at the University to argue against youth apathy and suggest ways to get more people involved in politics.

Yesterday afternoon in Macdonald Hall, Ignatieff delivered a speech about civic engagement in Canada in the 21st century to room overflowing with listeners.

As a history student at the University of Toronto in the 1960s, Ignatieff demonstrated a high level Liberal party, working on campaigns for Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliot Trudeau. In the summer of 1968, he served as a national youth organizer for the campaign to elect Trudeau Prime Minister.

From U of T, he went on to study at Oxford and Harvard.

He spent much of his adult life outside of Canada, working in London as a writer and political commentator. He has published a number of books on international affairs and has served on various international commissions about humanitarian issues.

In 2000 he moved back to North America to serve as director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He spent a year teaching at the University of Toronto before his official return to Canadian politics in January 2006, when he was elected to represent the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding in the federal government.

When he ran for the Liberal party’s leadership last December, he had a strong youth following known as “Iggy Nation.” Civic engagement doesn’t just apply to those who join political parties and campaign teams, Ignatieff said.

“Political engagement has to be seen as a kind of pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is running for political office, like I do. The bottom of it may include looking after some neighbour who’s vulnerable or joining a walk or run for cancer. It may involve going into the public service of Ontario or the public service of Canada or of a municipality.” Today’s society may be driven by profit and consumption, but even a capitalist society requires public service in order to function, he said.

In order to encourage students to pursue public sector opportunities, current leaders need to inspire the younger generation.

“It’s all how we pass the torch and who we pass the torch to.” And based on his experience with Canadian youth, Ignatieff believes there are enthusiastic future leaders out there.

“In every campaign I’ve ever had anything to do with, the backbone of any political campaign this country has ever had and ever will have is between 18 and 24 or 30,” he said.

Those 18- to 30-year-olds will be roused by the same messages as other demographics of the Canadian population, he said.

“Of course we have to communicate on the Internet. Of course we have to speak in a language people understand.”

But more important than the means of communication, he said, is the message being communicated.

“It’s about the message. Getting messages that mean something to students is almost the central business of politics.” Those messages could affect voter turn-out. In Canada today, Ignatieff said, voting—civic engagement at the most basic level—is an area of concern.

Ignatieff recalled that when he was a student at the University of Toronto in the 1960s, federal elections would yield an 80 per cent voter turnout rate.

“We have had elections in this century when the trend was down at 60 [per cent]. There are some concerns here,” he said.

“If it trends down too low, then you don’t have democracy or you have democracy by the minority.” To reverse the downward trend, Ignatieff said, politicians need to move away from their obsession with image and need to address the real problems the country faces instead.

“People think it’s about whether the guy is all charismatic, whether he speaks well, whether he manipulates the media well, whether he wears a carnation in his button-hold,” he said.

“Voters tend to participate when they think that there’s a good diagnosis of the challenges the country faces or they face, and a good answer.”

According to Ignatieff, Canada’s most dominant challenge is, and always has been, national unity.

“When anybody says national unity, it means Quebec and the rest of Canada or French-speaking and English-speaking Canada.

“I think we need to re-describe the national unity issue as one between rural and urban, northern and southern, eastern and western.”

Based on his travels in Ontario and nation-wide, many Canadians recognize this as one of the key issues facing the country.

He said people light up when he begins discussing national inequalities and unity, particularly in small towns, northern regions and rural areas. Although Canadians living in some metropolitan hubs might not recognize it as a serious issue, he quipped, “Toronto has always thought it was the centre of the universe.” Because of Canada’s geographic, demographic and ideological vastness, only the federal government can adequately address the problem, he said, although even they can’t do it alone.

“We’ve got to think about how we prevent these tensions from tearing us apart,” he said.

The country is moving different speeds, he said. Economies in some areas are flourishing at unprecedented rates and other areas lagging behind.

Although some might refer to those differences as an economic problem, Ignatieff disagrees. He thinks it’s a national unity issue.

“How do we get balanced economic prosperity that pulls us together, instead of driving us ever further apart?” he asked.

It’s not just economic differences that are dividing the country though. Ignatieff pointed to the shortage of doctors in areas such as the small towns around Kingston as evidence of the inequality of access to basic needs such as health care in Canada.

“These I think are the fundamental questions, driven by our geography, by how huge we are, how spread out we are. These are the challenges we have to address.” As long as he’s given the opportunity to keep thinking about this challenge, he will.

“It depends on what the voters want to do and what the party wants to do.” He doesn’t foresee a move back to the academic world from which he only recently emerged. He’s sticking with politics for the time being.

“I loved being at Harvard. I love having an honorary degree from Queen’s and I love being the great-great-grandson of George Munro Grant [after whom Grant Hall is named], being part of Canadian universities.

“But I’m happy where I am.”

Beyond the ballot

  • Voter turnout has steadily declined in the last 20 years. In 1969, the federal election turnout was 79 per cent. In the 2006 federal election, turnout was estimated at 65 per cent.
  • Some analysts think this is not a decline in political interest, but rather a “shift” in political engagement to more unconventional activities—including petitions, boycotts and public demonstrations.
  • Canadians under 30 are more likely than those over 30 to conduct individual research on a political issue: 33.2 per cent of people in the age bracket of 15 to 29 said they searched for information on a political issue, and only 25.3 per cent of those between the age of 25 to 39 did.
  • Canadians with higher education have a higher level of civic participation: 31 per cent of people with a university degree attended a public meeting, compared to 19 per cent of those with a high school diploma in 2003.
  • Voters in the most recent federal and provincial elections had a higher chance of participating in other political activities. Thirty-six per cent of voters said they also signed a petition in 2003, while only 18 per cent of non-voters did.
Source: 2003 General Social Survey on Social Engagement by Statistics Canada, and electionscanada.ca; Compiled by Rosel Kim

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