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Medicine for our democratic malaise (1)

Revisioning Canada’s political parties

by Heather MacIvor

Canada suffers from a deepening democratic malaise. Fewer citizens vote: turnout has declined steadily from an average of 75 per cent in the pre-1993 period to 60.5 per cent in 2004. And these are registered voters: if all potential voters were taken into account, the actual incidence of voting would be even lower.

Falling turnout is only the most obvious symptom of the malaise. Another is the low incidence of party membership. Among citizens of Western democracies, Canadians are the least likely to join political parties, with roughly 2 per cent of Canadians being party members. This figure does tend to increase during periods of intense mobilization – leadership contests, local nomination battles and election campaigns – but few “instant” members remain active once the immediate battle ceases. Moreover, few long-serving party members can be described as “active.” According to the recent survey of partisans by William Cross and Lisa Young, most members devote little time to party campaign work and no time to party activities between elections.1

Within a few years, this percentage is likely to decline even further. Cross and Young report that the average age of “hard core” members is 60; only 5 per cent are under 30. Young Canadians appear increasingly apathetic – even antipathetic – toward representative democracy in general, and parties in particular. Moreover, many middle-aged Canadians, whom the parties count on for new recruits, are being turned away from politics by the allegations of corruption and favouritism issuing from the Gomery inquiry. All this at a time of instability in the party system, which seems set to produce minority governments and frequent elections, demanding more time and effort from Canadian partisans than most seem willing to muster.

The implications on party organization are troubling. A party lacking a solid base in the electorate cannot carry out its functions of linking the institutions of government to civil society and, in the words of the 1991 Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, of providing “opportunities for citizens to exercise their rights and to perform their civic obligations through volunteer participation in political activities and public discourse.” The link between party activity and voter turnout is particularly significant. A 2002 survey of Canadian nonvoters found that people who had been contacted by a political party during an election campaign were significantly more likely to vote than those who had not. If parties lack the volunteer base required to carry out a strong “retail” campaign, they cannot mobilize citizens to “exercise their rights” by casting ballots.

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About the Author

Heather MacIvor


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