I have been contemplating writing this column for some time now. During the lead up to the recent municipal elections, there were a number of columns about voter apathy, a number of stories on youth engagement in the political process and now, in the aftermath of the elections, commentaries on how and why the results are what they are.
As we were crossing Davis Strait this past July on the Students on Ice expedition, there was a day when students identified eight or 10 issues they would like to lead the discussion on. Over the course of a couple of days, students led workshops on global warming, sustainable development, active, healthy living and community activism to name a few. Two students from Norway, however, decided to lead discussions on political involvement and activism.
Probably as no surprise, I decided to attend their workshops. It was quite interesting to watch as the Norwegian students advocated quite strongly for youth to get involved, to become members of parties, to engage directly in the political process. They were adamant, and in total agreement, even though they were supporters of two opposing political parties, that the surest, most direct way to influence government agendas was directly through the political process.
Well, that seemed quite logical to me. The odd thing though was that every North American student in attendance was leery, skeptical and even cynical.
They persisted nevertheless, insisting that youth should attend political meetings, read party platforms, compare positions and get informed. Imagine! I was shocked. And not once did they mention Twitter or for that matter any other social media forum.
So, I had to check out the stats on Norway. I didn’t check out the level of connectivity of Norway, but I think it is safe to assume it is as good as you are going to get anywhere in the world. But I did check electoral participation rates in Norway. It is consistently above 80 per cent, compared to a paltry 60 per cent participation in Canada and in the 50 per cent range in the U.S.
So why the difference?
Well, I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the attitudes of Norwegians generally towards politicians and something to do with our attitude towards politicians. Sure, you might say, Norway has one of the highest standards of living in the world, fabulous social programs, education and health care. Well, as much as we like to complain, we aren’t exactly sub-Saharan Africa on those fronts are we?
While I was in politics, on occasions that are too numerous to count, friends would comment, “Trevor, you must be crazy to be at that.” My answer many times was, “Well, you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.” I am talking about good friends, the kind you grew up with, went to school with, did stupid things with as a teenager and the older kind, that changed your diaper, babysat you, the ones that really know you, know where you came from, know more about you than you care to remember.
I find myself on too many occasions marvelling about how many commentators, media hosts and the public stereotypically characterize politicians as a group on the take, looking to line their own pockets, a group who couldn’t do much else, so they end up in politics.
While attending the PC convention last week, I ran in to former premier Roger Grimes. (No, he wasn’t at the convention!) I got to thinking, what did Roger Grimes walk away with other than a pension that he spent a lifetime of public service earning?
And I got to thinking about all the other politicians of all political stripes that I had the fortune to work with and against. The vast majority of them were decent, hard-working individuals. Most of them had been successful in some other field, had spent time working in their communities, had earned the respect of their peers and in most cases had been persuaded by others to put their name out there for public office.
And the majority left with no more than they went in with, minus some of their good reputation having been a politician and having to make some of the tough decisions that we ask of them.
None of them went in to politics because there was nothing else they could do; on the contrary, they got elected because people recognize them as people who get things done. And yes, some screw up, some inadvertently, some deliberately, and some go to jail because of it. Much like in the rest of society.
Voter apathy has more to do with the uninformed or ill-informed attitudes of the electorate than it has to do with politicians.
Next time you wonder why more people don’t go into politics, ask yourself, “Are they crazy?” Those that do aren’t, but some days it helps!
Trevor Taylor is a former cabinet minister under the Danny Williams administration. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.