Voter apathy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2004, 12:00am

What if they called a general election and nobody under 30 turned up? It may yet happen. Only one-quarter of young Canadians voted last time, in 2000, and even fewer are expected to do so on June 28. Their mood is a thesaurus of alienation: bored, cynical, indifferent, dismissive, impatient, angry, contemptuous, and otherwise occupied.

They are called the X-Generation. In this case the 'X' definitely does not stand for a mark on a ballot sheet. 'I don't vote, I dance,' said one young Toronto man. That flippant answer masks a political malaise that runs deep. Voting only takes a few minutes every five years, but most young people now see it as a waste of time.

Even older Canadians, raised on the belief that voting is a democratic duty, are doing so reluctantly. Margaret Wente, a respected columnist, summed up the national mood when she wrote of Prime Minister Paul Martin's ruling Liberals: 'The voters think this party's full of crooks who stole our money, and incompetents who just keep on wasting it.'

The other parties in the political spectrum do not have much more credibility among the young. The main opposition, the Conservatives, are seen as cranky right-wingers. The socialist New Democrats are dismissed as free-spenders who can promise anything because they will never be elected. And the Bloc Quebecois believes in only one thing: the breakup of Canada. So what is the choice?

This kind of voter apathy may seem hard to understand in places (like Hong Kong) where democracy is a precious thing. Why would anyone jeopardise democratic freedoms by boycotting the ballot box, and risk handing over power to the middle-aged, the corrupt and the incompetent?

As the saying goes: 'Those who don't vote deserve everything they get.' Maybe so, but young Canadians resolutely refuse to play the game. They are convinced the outcome is rigged and the players cannot be trusted. Recently, the premier of Ontario announced a big tax increase, just weeks after an explicit promise not to do so, during a provincial election campaign. He said he had no choice. Voters called it a lie. When Mr Martin took over, he promised to correct what he called 'a democratic deficit'. Then, without apology, he made a mockery of the process by handpicking favoured candidates in a number of areas.

The result? Many young Canadians feel that voting would only validate a system in which they have lost faith. So without any political voices that appeal to them, they turn away, and dance. It may undermine democracy. But this is the new silent majority. It is the same in many western countries. Governments should pay attention.