Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voting matters, more or less

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It's been my experience that a politician's accessibility -- to media, specifically, but also to the public -- is correlated with the amount of political power he or she wields.

It's virtually impossible to get close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, let alone ask him a question about something. I attended the news conference he held in Winnipeg a year-and-a-half ago to announce his government's anti-drug strategy, and the experience supports my theory. It was a highly micro-managed affair, complete with pre-screened questions and carefully scripted answers. I wasn't even allowed to move from the spot I was standing in to take a picture.

Elizabeth May, in contrast, has always been extremely approachable and very accommodating with respect to interviews. This, too, proves my point: As the leader of the Green Party of Canada, May enjoys a fair bit of name recognition but little in the way of political clout.

That's not to say May is politically irrelevant. She is the woman who starred in the most exciting story of the 2008 federal election campaign, when her exclusion from the televised leaders' debates provoked a grassroots public reaction so intense, the consortium of TV networks reversed its decision.

May has a new book out, called Losing Confidence: Power, Politics, and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy. It covers a lot of ground -- everything from the shift towards a hyper-partisan, combative style of politics, to the concentration of media ownership and the impact this has had on the quality of news journalism, to the increased (and unprecedented) power that the prime minister now has over his cabinet and why that's a bad thing. It's a fascinating read.

May makes a strong case for the need for proportional representation, arguing that our country's first-past-the-post voting system discourages citizen engagement, which she considers fundamental to a healthy, functioning democracy.

"A person's sense of personal power and satisfaction with voting is undercut in a system where huge numbers of people's votes essentially don't count," she told me. "If you're in a so-called safe Liberal riding or a safe Conservative riding or a safe NDP riding and you vote for one of the other parties, you have a sense of futility... It disenfranchises so many people."

It's tough to argue with her. Anecdotally, it's easy to find evidence of the disenfranchisement she's talking about. Ask any Conservative supporter who happens to live in Transcona. Ask any one of the 937,613 Canadians who voted Green last fall -- an election, by the way, that saw the lowest voter turnout in our country's history.

Disenfranchised, indeed.

I know a bright, compassionate, politically aware guy in his 30s who consciously chooses not to vote because he thinks the system is broken beyond repair. I've tried my best to reason with him -- pointed out repeatedly that people far stupider than him will cast ballots and that, if nothing else, he needs to vote in order to counteract the potential damage they could cause. It's been to no avail.

I know another guy (who, coincidentally, is also in his 30s) who is seriously considering giving up on voting all together. He told me it's pointless because nothing ever changes.

He's wrong. Things can change if enough people demand that they do -- just look at what a critical mass of outraged citizens managed to accomplish in the lead-up to the televised leaders' debates.

It's true that the politicians who currently wield the most power are unlikely to be inclined to relinquish it.

Democracy, however, isn't about politicians. Democracy is about the will of the people.

If we want to see changes made to the status quo, it's up to us to get involved and make them happen. As May says: "Politics is not a spectator sport."

Marlo Campbell writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2009 A10

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