#onpoli newsletter: The biggest mystery in politics

If campaign managers crack the code to this riddle, it could transform the political landscape
By Eric Bombicino - Published on June 6, 2019
Kathleen Wynne sits with legislative pages
Then-premier Kathleen Wynne chats with pages, 2017 (Photo: Legislative Assembly of Ontario)

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Hi, #onpoli people!

There are many great mysteries in the world that continue to baffle us. How was Stonehenge built? If you pass through a black hole, does time stand still? And why did they let Pauly Shore make all those movies in the ’90s?

But there may be no greater mystery, at least for campaign managers, than how to get more young people engaged in politics.

In every federal election since 1980, Canada’s youngest voters have turned out in numbers well below the rate for every other demographic group.

The first group of pages to include girls, 1971 (Photo: Legislative Assembly of Ontario)

Cracking the code to this mystery may lie in studying the Grade 7 and 8 Ontario students who participate in the Queen’s Park Page Program every year. They are young and politically engaged. They can even name every member of the provincial parliament — all 124 MPPs.

In this week’s episode, TVO producer and former Queen’s Park page Matthew O’Mara explores the page program and hunts for answers to the question of how to get youth more involved in politics.

Bring in the pages!

If you are ever at Queen’s Park, make sure to say hi to the pages. They’re easy to spot. In their matching suits and ties, “they’re immaculately dressed,” says producer Matthew, and “walk in shoulder-to-shoulder pairs as if propping up one another, and always have their hands either at their sides or held neatly in front of them.”

Then-premier Kathleen Wynne chats with pages, 2017 (Photo: Legislative Assembly of Ontario)

Matthew spoke with Queen’s Park page Julien Wang, who became interested in politics at the ripe old age of nine. If you want more young people engaged in politics, you should probably have a listen to what Julien has to say.

But let’s step back for a second. Unless you’re a campaign manager, whose job is to get people out to the ballot box, why would you want more young people engaged in politics in the first place? Is it a good thing for adolescents to, for example, worry about Ontario’s debt-to-GDP ratio, or the global pressures acting on the province’s manufacturing sector?

I asked our host Steve Paikin this question in between takes during our weekly recording session.

“If they get out to vote when they’re 18,” he said, which someone like Julien is likely to do, “chances are they will keep voting through their whole life.”

Steve says that in every election he can recall, young people have voted disproportionately less than older voters. “The fact is the results of most elections would be different,” Steve said,  jabbing his thumb at me like Bill Clinton, “if young people voted in the same percentage that older people vote.”

Turnouts like that would force governments to pay attention to the issues that affect young people. Simply put, it would benefit them.

And, as John Michael McGrath added, it could benefit us all on issues like climate change.

“As a rule, we know from basically every survey that has ever been done, that young voters are far more enthusiastic about climate policy and climate action than older voters,” John Michael said. “Would governments generally be doing more to address climate change if young voters came out at 100 per cent turnout rates? I think they would.”

What do you think? Is it an unabashed good thing for young folks to be engaged in politics?

Let me know your thoughts by writing to onpolitics@tvo.org.


Apathy: a sign that democracy is working

I imagine that when Steve sees a lower voter turnout, he stares off into the distance and a single tear rolls slowly down his cheek. John Michael, gripped by a similar emotion, probably busies himself by cross-referencing spreadsheets that contain every voter turnout record in the modern era, searching for deeper clues.

But I digress. I mean, of course I think voting is a good thing. And it’s truly heartwarming to see kids like Julien Wang riffing on election results, which he does in this episode.

Still, for political Boy Scouts like Steve and John Michael, voting is an unquestionable, unassailable good. It’s an article of faith. The thinking goes that if voter turnout were higher, Ontario would be better. But would it really?

If your garbage is being picked up, if your rights aren’t being infringed upon, and things are generally working — i.e., our democracy is working — do you not have the luxury to check out politically, so to speak? Does the success of democracy not create the luxury of apathy?

In an earlier episode, we interviewed New Democrat MPP Bhutila Karpoche, North America’s first elected official of Tibetan descent. She grew up in Nepal, where she was stateless, and had no choice but to be political. She didn’t have the luxury to check out politically.

So maybe a super-high turnout rate in Ontario wouldn’t magically make things better but would be a sign that things have gone terribly wrong. Maybe middling turnout rates are a sign that things are generally working.

Before I get buried under a deluge of hate mail (which I welcome!), I should make it clear: I vote. Every election. And politics is not just about if things are working for you, but for everyone, especially those worse off than you. That’s the difference between being a citizen and merely a consumer of government services.

But this article of faith that boosting voter turnout will unlock some never-before-seen level of democratic success needs a reality check. (Hey, I’ve always wanted to do a TED Talk. Do you think I’ve hit on a topic?)

What do you think? Hit me up at onpolitics@tvo.org.


Say what?

In response to our question last week about whether MPPs have enough independence, David Renegar wrote:

Massive reforms are needed. … Elected members in either Provincial Legislatures or our Federal Parliament need to have freedom to act on our behalf, not controlled by political hacks!


Thanks for your question, Walter! Here’s how John Michael responded via Twitter: “Currently, the Speaker is elected in a secret ballot (potentially several ballots) by MPPs at the start of the session. The rules say the Speaker must be an MPP and as far as I know there's no precedent for a non-MPP being Speaker.”

Who says Twitter isn’t a place for erudite discussion?

As ever, I’m here for all your feedback needs. Write me anytime and thanks for reading.

Eric

#onpoli producer

P.S. As always, our #onpoli team appreciates all your messages. And for those of you who are donors, thank you for supporting our work. As a registered non-profit charity, we are largely funded by donors. If you haven’t already, please consider making a donation. And when you do, write us to let us know! We love to hear more about you, our readers.


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