Why (more) good people don't enter politics in Canada

Canada’s democratic culture has a number of challenges to face in the 21st century.

At the University of British Columbia on Monday, Elections Canada hosted four leaders of democratic engagement to address issues, such as the low voter turnout among Canadians -- youth especially. The public perception in Canada, according to polls, is that politicians aren’t virtuous enough. Government doesn’t engage people enough, and in turn, the people don't engage with government either. 

As part of Canada’s Democracy Week, CBC Radio’s Stephen Quinn hosted the panel, and featured the following speakers:

  • Dr. Max Cameron, professor, UBC political science department and director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions 
  • Alison Loat, co-founder of Samara, a research centre on Canadian civic engagement
  •  Bernard Rudny, representative of Apathy is Boring 
  •  Peter McLeod, co-founder, MASS LBP 

Susan Torosian, Elections Canada’s Senior Director for Public Affairs, opened the event alongside the Chief Electoral Officer of British Columbia, Keith Archer.

Loat showcased her important venture of studying and grading the democratic health of nations, especially Canada’s, in a way that all citizens could engage with online.

Rudny, meanwhile, offered a new way to attract young and disengaged voters during election time, by hosting major festivals and concerts for the public near ballot stations. The organization has provided this before, and has noticed an increase in voter turn out in these areas by at least 10 per cent.

Lastly, McLeod offered his idea for demanding more civic engagement of the populous, by having governments and officials hosting deliberative sessions for policies, and inviting personally their constituents.

While their ideas inspiring, it was UBC’s Dr. Max Cameron who posed one of the most important questions for Canadian democracy.

Why don’t (more) good people enter politics?

Cameron posed the question about why more good people don't enter politics, as he has done many times over his career. His question has no easy answer. 

Instead, he said, it is for voters consider the pressure placed on politicians who must balance the needs of constituents with the orders of party leaders. The compromises they’re forced to make take a high level of heart and conviction, he said, which understandably dissuades many potential good politicians from entering politics in the first place.

With our society equating the term “politician” with self-interest and greed, the talent we could have at the helm of our parties go elsewhere to avoid the piercing public eye.

Dr. Cameron put forward his stance against the institution of party discipline, which prevents parliamentarians from using the heart and conviction to make important decisions – those traits that brought these individuals into their seats in the first place. But he places the flaw not only on our elected officials, but we the electors ourselves.

“We have no business complaining about our democracy…if we don’t vote," he asserts. 

He argued for that if citizens are obliged to our country to pay taxes, and to respect the “fundamental rights and freedoms of others”, it should only be mandatory to vote in each election as well – quite the “modest proposal”, as he put it. Voting is already mandatory in other countries, including Belgium and Australia. 

As was the theme with the other panelists, Dr. Cameron demanded that if our democracy were to flourish, Canada needs more active citizenship. A populous more involved in political parties and other volunteer organizations would result in better citizens, who would (forcefully) elect better leaders, he said.

“In this respect, UBC’s motto is apt: Tu um est.  It is up to you.  It is up to all of us”.

Dr. Cameron’s full speech is available at this link.

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