Letter: Mandatory voting isn’t the solution

In a Feb. 16 letter, Sima Shakeri wrote that Canada should institute mandatory voting, to cure what ails Canadian democracy.

Shakeri praises Australia for its mandatory voting system, and its consistent voter turnouts of more than 90 per cent.

This does not say much about the state of Australian democracy. After all, it is mandatory. In fact, researchers at the Australian National University released a study in December 2016 reviewing their most recent federal election, concluding that faith in Australia’s democracy hasn’t been so low since 1975. A 2014 study from the Lowy Institute found less than a third of voting-age Australians had confidence in the federal government.

The same problem exists in our country. Eighty per cent of Canadians surveyed in an Edelman poll released in February said they think elites are out of touch with ordinary people. Forty-three per cent of people surveyed said they trust the government, down from 53 per cent last year.

As the same poll shows, this is an international crisis of democracy at the moment. People are growing more and more suspicious of institutions. It is understandable in this climate why we’ve seen a rise in right-wing populism across the Western world. I want to stress that we should try to understand why people have turned to this, rather than just scream at them to go vote.

Clearly something else is wrong that cannot just be magically erased by making voting mandatory.

The common problem is a general feeling of frustration and helplessness. People here don’t believe their individual vote at the ballot box has an impact, so why should they bother? We have seen this alienation quickly descend into anger.

I believe the people are correct in feeling this way. This is not a conspiracy theory—this is merely what representative democracy is. Members of Parliament are not delegates acting strictly on behalf of their constituents. They have the party’s interests, and other interests, at heart.

In 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community. In it he found a relationship between a decline in participation in community life—the Boy Scouts, bowling leagues, etc.—and political engagement. As Shakeri points out, voter turnout in Canada is far below its record-high in 1958, and this is probably one reason why.

To get a genuine functioning democracy, we would need a lot more than a few bowling leagues. Maybe it is time for a radical transition towards participatory democracy to empower people to take control of their own lives, not just in politics, but in the economic sphere as well.

We should look to countries such as Germany and Japan, which have made it a priority to mandate that ordinary workers have a greater say in, if not complete control, of their workplaces. This would be a prerequisite for a society where power is truly in the hands of the people. It cannot be limited to an uninformed box-checking once every few years.

This may seem like a mad solution, and it would certainly be more difficult than instituting mandatory voting. It would also likely take a long time. But if we’re committed to liberty and democracy, this should be our road. Our current one is leading down a dark path.

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