Last Friday Prime Minister Harper appointed Salma Ataullahjan to fill the last Senate vacancy. Ms. Ataullahjan is a former Conservative candidate and has pledged to support the Conservative government’s efforts to reform the Senate. Considering the fact that with this appointment, the Conservatives have the same number of voting members in the Upper Chamber as the Liberals and independents combined, the possibility of Senate reform is greater now than ever! But, as the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson noted, Senate reform is “a subject that animates a few Canadians and bores the rest.”
This does not mean that the Senate is not an important issue. The Canadian Senate needs reforming— it is undemocratic and, although intended to be a regional balance to the House of Commons, it is not an effective regional voice in Ottawa. Reform has the potential to make the Senate more representative and to improve the functioning of the Canadian political machine.
Yet, as a young(ish) person concerned with issues of public policy—a self proclaimed policy wonk wannabe—even I struggle to care about Senate reform.
For one, Senate reform is not a “sexy” issue like climate change or animal rights. Therefore, you do not see protestors out scaling the walls of parliament to hang giant banners demanding that the Canadian Senate be reformed.
But it is more than that.
Senate reform does not address the issues that really matter. There are much more pressing issues in Canadian politics, like citizen disillusionment with government and politics. Only 58.8% of eligible Canadians voted in the 2008 federal election. The issue is even more prominent among young Canadians as only 37.4% of this sector of the population voted in the same election! Voter apathy is often attributed to increased identification requirements, people being too busy to vote and even “lazy, incompetent young people.” But, perhaps the most common reason given is that people increasingly just do not care about politics.
However, according to Statistics Canada, the reality is that people (particularly youth), “are interested in political issues,” and “committed to the tenets of democracy,” but they are, “wary of politicians.” So, what the voting statistics really are is a symptom of Canadian politics lacking: 1) trust in politicians, and 2) long-term vision on the part of our policymakers. What our politicians are selling, Canadians just aren’t buying!
This should not be a surprise. To the first point, the question has been asked in countless polls: whom do you trust? The answer is usually the same. Doctors and nurses tend to come first, the police are near the top, and journalists and politicians rank at the very bottom.
To the second point, we see a government that tends to launch attacks at people rather than policy. Our political leaders seem most concerned about how their actions are going to play out in public opinion polls rather than thinking about how they will impact Canada’s future. They are not rock stars whose job it is to entertain. Politicians should be thinking about what Canada can and should be and what needs to be done to get us there. They should be thinking about the next five or ten years, not just the next five or ten minutes.
That is what matters. If you want people to care, you need to address the issues that matter. Citizen disillusionment with politicians and the political system is one major issue, one not addressed by the current Senate reform proposals. Again, it is not that the issue of Senate reform does not have merit. However, tinkering with the mechanics of the Senate when people are increasingly apathetic about democracy is a little bit like a pilot fiddling with his headset when the plane is crashing—it really just misses the point. People do not care— and they won’t—at least not until the bigger fish are fried.
Posted by: Candice Powley