A Means to Fight Political Apathy

Humbly, I do not agree with the position that the change outlined by the “Fair vote Canada” declaration will increase democracy in Canada. It may increase the appearance of greater democracy, but it will not actually increase it.

The reason for this is that fundamentally, our system of government, “whipped” by party discipline, is an elected dictatorship.

Please note that “elected dictatorship” or “elective dictatorship” is the focus of study and discussion in a number of countries as illustrated in the compilation “Restraining Elective Dictatorship”. In reading this compilation, it is fairly clear that, independent of the electoral system (a “first past the post” system to a “proportional” system or somewhere in between), the result of most any election is still the same: an “elected dictatorship”.

In our system of government, the only “checks and balances” on the “elected dictatorship” are the Senate and the Supreme Court. And in the case of the Senate, well, only Santa can help…

In my opinion, there is really only one thing that threatens the Canadian democracy. And that is: apathy!

The accepted measure of political apathy is the percentage of voter turnout.

In the Canadian context, voter turn-out has dropped to 61% in the 2011 federal election from a high of 79% in the 1963 federal election. This fits in the general tendency found in a number of countries such as France and England (parliamentary: 54.4%, 65.5% respectively).

However, the percentage of the population that are involved in the political process as described by the number of members of a political party can also be a measure of the level of political apathy.

Consider that in Europe the percentage of the population involved in a country’s politics is low with the exceptions being Austria (17%) and Cyprus (16%) where voter turnout is actually quite high (75% and 78% respectively). In France and the UK, the percentage drops to under 2% and just over 1% respectively. Taking a look at Australia which has both a proportional electoral system and mandatory voting, it is interesting to note that voter turnout is 93% while it is quoted that the number of Australian citizens that are member of one of 50+ parties is less than the number of people on the waiting list to the Melbourne Cricket Club or some 233000 individuals. With an eligible voting population of 14.7 million that represents some 1.5% of the population only!

And now compare these numbers with those of the US where amongst the 235 248 000 eligible voters in the 2012 Presidential election of which 51% voted there were some 75 million members of registered political parties (43 million members of the Democratic Party and 30 million members of the Republican Party). That is 31% of the eligible voter population!

While in Canada only about 2% of the population actually gets involved in political discourse as measured by federal party membership estimates.

Based on these numbers it is difficult to see which country’s population is the most apathetic about its politics. However, you take the inverse of the products of turnout and involvement as illustrated in the table below you create a metric that could be used to measure the level of apathy in particular country.

Apathy Metric

Using this “apathy” metric, it is possible to see that the USA has the lowest amount of political apathy amongst its population while the UK has the greatest amount of political apathy in its population.

It is interesting to note that Australia is marginally better than Canada mainly due to the very low level of involvement of its population in it political life.

Based on these numbers, it is not obvious that a proportional electoral system will improve our democracy. As a result, investing a lot of effort into changing our “first past the post” electoral system may indeed not produce the desired results of fighting apathy and improving if not protecting our democracy.

On the other hand, what is obvious to me from these numbers is that we need to work on increasing voter turnout as well as increasing the involvement of the our population in our political process such as through membership and volunteering in our political parties.

Therefore, in order to fight political apathy and protect and develop our democracy, there are really only two measures that should be promoted which are:

  1. Legislate mandatory participation in federal elections.
  2. Create a zero net cost tax rebate incentive system for involvement in political parties.

Australia has demonstrated that mandatory participation in federal elections works. Implementing such a measure in Canada would drop the apathy factor by 34% (assuming we reach 93% voter turnout).

A zero net cost tax rebate would be a revenue independent incentive program that recompense Canadians of a nominal $10 contribution to a political party. This measure would not be in lieu of the current tax credit to political parties. However, this measure would be designed such that any Canadian of any income level would be free to engage the political environment. It would probably also spur the increase of the number of political parties in Canada. As a result, it could be expected that the Canadian population involvement in the political process would increase to the US level if not surpass it. It is interesting to note that with a 31% involvement rate along with a 93% turnout, the apathy rating for Canada would be 3.

And the most interesting thing about legislating mandatory participation in federal elections and creating a zero cost tax credit as opposed to changing the “first past the post” electoral system is that it does not require approval from all parties to move this forward.

It only takes the one party that is in power…