Democracy inaction!

Brendan Kergin, News Editor  Ω

You live in a democracy

With that fact comes a responsibility. If people want the freedoms and choices afforded them in a democracy they are responsible for being aware of the processes which hold such a societal structure in place.

Here’s the thing though – studies show, students and young people at large just don’t give a –
On a federal level, ignoring the recent success of Jack Layton’s NDP, the 18 to 25 demographic is traditionally absent from voting booths. Youth Voter Turnout in Canada, a public report on parl.gc.ca (the Parliament of Canada’s official website), compared the turnouts of young people (under the age of 25) for the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal elections. According to the report under 40 per cent voted on average. Numbers for the most recent election haven’t been tabulated. While they may have gone up, it’s likely they will still be the lowest of any age demographic, as they have been in nearly every federal election since 1970.

And that’s at the highest level of office. Once we get down to the municipal levels, low levels of voter turnout  become even more prominent.

Low municipal turnout is partly due to the fact that youth-centred issues are rarely discussed during city elections. Young people also tend to be more transient, renting homes and moving more often, sometimes changing municipalities multiple times in a year. An Elections Canada report on the 2010 Toronto municipal election also noted the lack of data collected on youth and municipal elections. It suggested that campaigners found it difficult to engage young people without the data to calculate their strategies.

That brings us to student politics. Terms last one year, student union membership almost completely turns over every five years, and the majority of eligible voters are from the age demographic least likely to vote.

With the recent Thompson Rivers University Student Union (TRU) election it became apparent there was a greater lack of participation than previous years. 10.4 per cent of the 7090 eligible members partook.

Western governments and international media hailed the revolutions in Middle Eastern and North African nations as a sign of democracy’s power as a concept. However, those same Western countries are experiencing declining voting figures according to studies in many established democracies. And while many considered the youth a driving force of those revolutions, their peers in Canada seem less and less interested in those same ideals.

TRU

While B.C. campuses tend to get low turnouts, TRUSU has done relatively well in the past (heavy on the relatively). The University of British Columbia-Okanagan (UBCO) student council election this year was considered a blockbuster as far as turnout is considered. The UBCO student paper The Phoenix proclaimed “UBCO has massive election.” The huge turnout? Twenty-five per cent of eligible voters.

Last year at TRU was a big year as well, with 44 candidates and about 18 per cent turnout. One of the reasons postulated by some students for the low poll numbers this year was the fact only one slate ran and each position only had one person running in it. This gave students the option of voting for that slate or to ask for re-running of the process. For one available position the slate didn’t have a candidate and an independent candidate ran.

“I think there’s multiple things at play. We’re coming to the end of the semester when students are focused on one thing right now and that’s getting their papers in or doing their midterms,” according to Dustin McIntyre, VP internal and incoming president of TRUSU.

“If you want to call that student voter apathy, that they care about their schooling more than coming to the student union to vote, sure. I don’t call that voter apathy. I think if people legitimately could come and vote and they just didn’t want to,  that would be voter apathy, and I think, sure it was a low turnout, but I don’t think that’s a sign of anything that’s negative.”

According to McIntyre, there wasn’t a hot-button issue in this election, and he doesn’t think there usually is.

“If there was, maybe if there was something larger that was taking place and the student union had a pivotal role in that, voter turn out would be a lot higher because that issue would be in people’s minds and they saw the solution as coming to vote at TRUSU.

“We’re talking about a lot of people who are only here nine to five and then they disengage from campus. I don’t think the state of democracy on campus is failing. I feel that democracy is a process and it ebbs and flows.”

TRUSU Executive Director Nathan Lane agrees to a point, but believes poor turn out is an issue campaigners need to face as well.

“I think a lot of responsibility for youth voter turnout has to be split equally. It has to be split because candidates…have to speak to issues that mobilize young people,” said Lane. “You cannot expect people to participate in a process if they do not feel like the issues being debated in that process affect their everyday lives. I think that that’s important. I also think that there needs to be some responsibility from young people to say ‘If I want my issues to be heard I have to make it to the ballot box.’”

Fourth-year journalism student Joey Jack has become a vocal critic of TRUSU and their communication tactics during the Winter 2012 semester. In a recent open letter printed in the Omega he called out what he considered a lack of effort in the student union’s communication to students. In particular he pointed to social media and the lack of real discussion with students and notification of the council election.

“It’s bullshit. It’s embarrassing because we all learn so much at school, we learn so many things, and it’s like we’re learning to not give a shit,” said Jack. “I think if it’s that low they should have to do it again. It should be a do over. How embarrassing is that? When you look at the numbers? They can’t even claim that 1 in 10 people on campus wants them in power. That’s embarrassing.”

McIntyre points out that while few students came out to vote, the majority did approve his bid for presidency.

“Am I glad that we had a low voter turn-out? Absolutely not. I can’t say that I’m happy that only 10 per cent came out, but I’m also going to say that I’m happy that 500 hundred students came out and said that Dustin McIntyre is the best president for the job,” he said. “If they didn’t feel that way they had the option to vote no.”

Kristi DeWolf, a fourth-year bachelor of arts student, majoring in history with a political science minor, ran for VP external last year. She’s also been very active in the TRU student body, as a student caucus member (elected co-chair), president and founder of the TRUSU Politics Club, member of the Educational Programming Committee (sub-Senate committee) and other student organizations. She also sees onus lying on both the student union and students. While poster boards have proven ineffective, there are other streams to engage and encourage student participation.

Like Lane, Dewolf sees a duality in communication responsibility.

“And there is onus on students as well. We have to really make a bit of an effort to go out and see what’s out there or I guess continue with the apathy which makes me sad,” DeWolf said.

However, she points out the student union has the resources to become a hub for student communication.

“The TRUSU website, they have made a lot of changes to and it has gotten a lot better over the past four years, but there’s really not a lot of advertising other than that. And I know that’s something that even within TRUSU they want to work on, especially for student services,” she said. “I think it’s really important that when we’re paying a certain dollar amount every year towards or student union fees, that we should have some more detail on what those fees are going into and what we get out of those fees.

“I think using the Facebook page more because so many people do use Facebook and yet again there was nothing really about the election there either. Maybe doing classroom presentations, that seems effective. A lot of professors really are open to classroom presentations especially because their part of a union too,” said DeWolf.

At the time of publication the TRUSU Facebook page had three posts relating to the election. One post notified about the closing of nominations closing shortly. The next announced the candidates while the final one announced the opening of the polling station. The union has posted 23 times during the winter semester. Seven of those postings were to add photos to the page.

As for the buzz worthy twitter, @TRUSU15 only has 157 followers compared to the Facebook page with 1415 followers.

The twitter feed is more active though, with 124 tweets this semester.

The Omega broke down those tweets into seven categories. The most common tweets had to do with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the campaigns run by the CFS such as the Drop Fees campaign and the movement to get rid of bottled water on campus. Thirty-nine percent of the tweets were CFS-centric, many tagged with #cfsfcee referencing the CFS. Services and events were next at 28 per cent, followed closely by deals offered by TRUSU membership at 21 per cent. There was a noticeable drop down to tweets about elections which was matched by TRUSU Facebook page ads, with four tweets each. The student with the twitter handle @marvinbeatty was replied to nearly as much as there were election notifications, as he had three responses to inquisitive tweets. There were two New Years messages, one for the Gregorian calendar and one for the Chinese New Years celebration.

Joey Jack also points out what he feels is another flaw in the TRUSU’s use of social media.
“There’s actually nowhere for me on their Facebook page to actually have a dialogue with them or with other students,” said Jack. “Wouldn’t it be great if TRUSU’s Facebook page had it so you could write on their wall and ask some questions?”

Lane feels that social media, while useful, may be a bit of a red herring in communicating with Kamloops’ post-secondary students.

“Especially in Kamloops it’s important that people are doing face-to-face organizing in terms of going out and speaking to people about issues,” said Lane. “I think that there is a number of people that utilize Facebook, but I also think that there is a lot of clicktivism that goes on where people may ‘like’ a page but that doesn’t mean they go to the ballot box, that doesn’t mean they participate in an issue.”

Jack thinks better ideas would provide more value for the unions communication budget.
“I charge people to come to my events. I’m a stand up comedian and I’m in a band. I charge people $10 to come and see me and I’ve never had less than 100 people come to any of my events,” said Jack.

A Broader Problem

It should be noted that the lack of interest in student politics is faced by most campuses. At the University of Victoria the regular turnout of 20 per cent has caused some to question student apathy at that institution. At Simon Fraser University recent columns in the student newspaper the Peak criticize the students for a lack of interest and the candidates for showing a lack of enthusiasm as well.

This may be linked to the fact that local democratic institutions aren’t openly threatened.

“I think the best example of that is if you look at the 1960s in North America when people saw right in front of them that certain rights were being abused,” DeWolf said.

“These blatant abuses or things that people didn’t agree with gave them cause to stand up for what they believe in. And so, because we do feel safe we do tend to just follow the status quo.”

Lane and McIntyre agree that Canadians, especially the younger generation, believe the concept of democracy is safe, and therefore doesn’t require their participation.

“It’s an institution that’s not going anywhere. There’s no imminent threat, there’s no Cold War happening,” said McIntyre. “It’s a lull period where people are like ‘It’s there, it’s fine. We don’t have to worry about it so let’s just leave it there and if I don’t want to be involved I don’t have to be involved. I’m not worried about it.’”

A recent research paper called “The Values of Youth in Canada,” commissioned by the Government of Canada as part of the Policy Research Initiative, dedicates a good section to the political action and interests of youth. While no hard conclusions are made it does note that while political parties have lost membership, political awareness is still high and there is activity among youth. Arts and culture organizations have seen an increase in membership, as it appears youth are moving away from a political culture they don’t feel they fit into. McIntyre has felt the same way.

“You’ve got the right wing party, you’ve got the union party, you’ve got the crazy party and then you’ve got the totalitarian party, that’s what I see and I don’t want to engage in that,” he said. “It’s cookie-cutter politics and you tow the line or you’re not a part of it.”

Referencing federal NDP leader Jack Layton and U.S. Democrat Barack Obama’s recent campaigns which seemed to invigorate younger participants with rhetoric, Lane said, “Both of those campaigns were [ones] that mobilized around some form of progressive or positive change.”

So what is the issue?

Why is this generation seemingly so disengaged from those who make decisions on how society is run?
Is TRU facing the same crisis of apathy?

Why is the democratic process so often ignored?

Do we feel it is safe enough to be ignored?

Do the youth feel a lack of empowerment and importance?

Has the digital age, while empowering some to become active, distracted others from the entire political arena?

Does Canadian politics seem too boring compared to the revolutions in some countries?

Are we suffering from political envy watching  Obama and the Tea Party?

Have there been no hot-button issues which engage our younger population?
It seems these are all answers. There is no silver bullet.

Unless students start giving a fuck in general.

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