Comment: Time for the majority to be politically engaged

Bill Durodié

The big winner in B.C.’s provincial elections this week was the “no show” party.

Estimates put the turnout at about 52 per cent of the eligible electorate, possibly about one percentage point higher than the election in 2009. But this also represented fewer votes cast overall (about 1.62 million) than on that occasion.

That is the real battle that Premier Christy Clark and her team ought to turn their attentions to. Otherwise, they might go the way of many other leading democracies in the world who — as in the U.K. local elections where none of the major parties could even manage 10 per cent of the available votes — end up effectively representing nobody but themselves.

This is not to detract from the B.C. Liberals’ success or to imply that they do not have a mandate. But they should be alert to the fact that the actual ballots cast in their favour totalled less than were received by the losing party in 1983 (the New Democratic Party again, as it happens), when 70 per cent of the electorate headed for the polls.

That a win today is achieved through fewer votes than a defeat 30 years ago is surely one of the key lessons to be drawn from this process. Leaving aside the inability of pollsters to call the outcome correctly, the dilemma we are faced with is that of the rule of a minority (about 23 per cent of eligible voters) over the rest.

And that minority figure is surely even worse among those who matter most — the 18- to 35-year-olds who represent the future of voting in a free democratic system and who consistently show less interest in such matters than the rest of the population. What’s more, as many will recognize, countless votes were cast negatively — against a candidate — rather than as a principled and passionate endorsement of the victors and their policies.

That is the way of democratic politics, of course. There is no accounting for the specificity of how or why votes are cast, nor should there be. To read too much into the result — other than that the B.C. Liberals will govern for the next four years — would be erroneous.

But one other lesson that should be drawn from the polls and the result is to highlight what some have already observed to be the apparent “fickleness” of the voters. If people said they would vote for one party one day and then changed their mind the next, that surely also points to a fundamental problem of what passes for our contemporary politics. That is, that there are few with any resolute and identifiable principles any more, either among the parties or the voters.

Rather, across the developed world today, people alternate freely according to their feelings about the individuals and organizations concerned, as well as what is reported about them. It would seem that in 21st-century democracies, image and style trump insight and substance at every turn. Rather than blaming the people, it is the leaders and commentators who should take a long, hard look at themselves in that regard.

Irrespective of her agenda and that of her party for the period ahead, it is these facts that should concern Clark and the Liberals the most, as well as all others interested in the health of our democracy. Today, the majority of those who are politically engaged and active represent a minority of our societies.

But, as we all know, democracy is not simply about putting your mark on a piece of paper every four years. It is time for everyone to get engaged.

Bill Durodié is program head of conflict analysis and management programs at Royal Roads University’s School of Peace and Conflict Management.