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Young voters have no taste for old-school politics

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Of all the victims to take a hit in the Mike Duffy Senate expenses scandal, there’s one that isn’t talked about much.

Democracy itself.

It’s hard to read the daily stories of ambiguous Senate expense rules, allegations of blackmail/payoffs and rampant disregard for the poor taxpayers who are underwriting this mess without asking yourself about the value of our democratic institutions. Why, many have asked, have a Senate at all if this is what it comes down to?

And few feel more alienated than young adults who should be engaged in developing the next generation of politicians. Instead, confronted with the spectacle of pork-bellying of old, white guys in suits, they make a perfectly understandable decision – not to vote at all.

In some respects, politics is facing the same crisis as many of our longstanding institutions, from service clubs, to prime time TV, to even traditional religious denominations. All are finding themselves increasingly irrelevant and gradually sinking into oblivion.

Like those other besieged institutions, politics as a profession is in a freefall, and our leaders are seemingly incapable of getting through to a skeptical generation of young people who simply do not buy in. It would take a miracle to turn this trend around.

It could be done. But restoring faith in our electoral system would require a new style of politics that eschews much of the current orthodoxy. It would mean an end to the cynical and mendacious “spinning” of information, replaced by a level of honesty that would send political advisors into apoplectic fits. It would also require a new generation of politicians whose values more closely match the young voters they wish to court.

It would amount to nothing less than a completely new paradigm for the political landscape. It may seem daunting, but if we want our parliamentary democracy to recover, these changes are absolutely essential.

Voter turnout grows when you have the right platform and the right person. In Calgary, the 2010 municipal election saw come-from-nowhere candidate Naheed Neshi defeat two old-style establishment candidates for the mayor’s job. It also saw a marked increase in voter turnout from below 30 per cent in previous elections to 53 per cent of eligible voters. Although John Tory didn’t have Nenshi’s rock star appeal, turnout in Toronto soared to 60 per cent in 2013 in a hot contest against Doug Ford, brother of disgraced former mayor Rob Ford.

Nenshi showed what a new-style politician do; Tory showed us voters will turn out when the issues are hot enough.

Sadly, such electoral lightning doesn’t strike that often. And when the issues are just more-of-the-same, young voters drift further away.

The decline of faith in our democratic institutions has been so incremental it’s easy to think that things have always been this way. But they haven’t. At the federal level, election turnout has gone into steady decline from a modern high point of 75.3 per cent in 1988 and 1992, according to data from Elections Canada. In 2008, it sank to an all-time low of 58.8 per cent before slightly rebounding to 61 per cent three years later.

The age breakdown is equally revealing. In the desired age group of 18 to 24, just one in three eligible voters bothered to cast his ballot. In the peak age group of 65 to 74, three out of four voted.

What would the country look like if young voters could be engaged? What will happen to the country if they can’t?

Next year’s federal election will be an interesting test of the ability to re-engage youth. Justin Trudeau got the job as leader of the Liberals, not because he’s bright or because he’s a policy wonk, but because he is a refreshing counterpoint to drab Stephen Harper, a young-ish guy with a bad haircut who looks old before his time.

Critics fear Trudeau doesn’t really represent the new politics; that he’s more form than substance. His occasional verbal gaffs only reinforce the impression.

That could be true, but one thing is for certain. Just like his controversial father before him, he’s not of the old guard. And like his father, he may have enough novelty to get young people out to the polls.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

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