Welcome to our third set of hearings today at the special committee on electoral reform, the evening edition.
Thank you to the witnesses for being here on a Wednesday evening in August in Ottawa.
We have with us three witnesses. I will read short biographies of each before we get going.
We have Jane Hilderman, Dominic Vézina, and Taylor Gunn with us this evening.
Jane Hilderman is the executive director of Samara, an organization seeking to reconnect citizens and politics. Ms. Hilderman has worked on Parliament Hill for both government and opposition MPs, and currently focuses on researching Canadian participation in democracy, how members of Parliament do their jobs, and the citizen perceptions of politics.
In 2011, Ms. Hilderman contributed to a report released by Samara featuring the voices of Canadians who feel disempowered by politics.
Dominc Vézina is a strategic advisor at the Institut du Nouveau Monde, a non-partisan organization whose mission is to increase citizen participation in democratic life. Mr. Vézina has experience in the areas of psychology and communications. He was manager of the educational resources service of a school board in Montreal at a time when the board implemented educational pilot projects on governance and citizenship. In 2010, the National Assembly of Quebec awarded Mr. Vézina the Prix du mérite municipal, recognizing the commitment of those who establish programs in their communities.
Finally, we have Taylor Gunn, the president and co-founder of Civix, spelt with an x, a non-partisan charity seeking to build skills and habits of citizenship among Canadian youth. One of this organization's longest running and most successful programs is Student Vote, which is a parallel election for students under the legal voting age. In April, Mr. Gunn received the 2016 Greer Award for outstanding contributions to publicly funded education in Ontario.
We will follow the order in the notice of meeting, meaning that we will start with Ms. Hilderman for 10 minutes. Each witness will speak for 10 minutes and then we'll have two rounds of questions in each round,
In each round of questions, each member will have the opportunity to talk to the witnesses of his or her choice for five minutes. It is very important to emphasize that the time includes the questions and the answers. If by chance witnesses have not had the time to answer a question because the five minutes are up, they should not worry. They will have the opportunity to answer the same question the next time they speak.
Without further delay, I would ask Ms. Hilderman to make her presentation on electoral reform.
Thank you, Chair, for the invitation to appear this evening at this almost final committee before you embark on your cross-country tour.
As the chair mentioned, I'm appearing on behalf of Samara Canada. We are a non-partisan, independent charity committed to strengthening Canada's democracy and reconnecting citizens to politics. At Samara we employ rigorous, accessible, and innovative research to expose how Canada's democracy works for Canadians. Our work is regularly cited in national media coverage, post-secondary classrooms, parliamentary discussions, and even in places like the most recent Travers Debate where humourist Scott Feschuk referred to Samara as “Parliament's mom”. We take that as a compliment. Our research works in tandem with Samara's engagement programming, as we aim to celebrate and encourage active citizenship.
I'd like to clarify for this committee that, unlike many of the academics and experts you've heard from throughout July and August, Samara Canada has not been immersed in the nuances of different electoral systems over many years. We have not been, and are not, an advocate for one particular electoral system over another.
Since our creation in 2009, most of our work has been focused on what I would call persistent or core challenges to a healthy and vibrant democracy. These challenges are typically found in most established democracies, irrespective of their electoral system. For example, in the eyes of many citizens, politics is often viewed as irrelevant or unimportant to their day-to-day lives, leading many to look to channels outside of politics to solve public problems. Elected officials often face a lack of respect and trust from the public, and many people will not consider running for elected office. Those that do often end up facing an extremely demanding job without many supports in place. Elections are typically not the places where these core challenges will be solved. Nevertheless, I recognize that elections remain key moments for our democracy that hold the attention of millions of Canadians, and voting still remains the primary avenue for citizens to express their political voice.
This committee has been tasked to explore alternatives to Canada's current electoral system and to do so in a way that includes a comprehensive and inclusive consultation with Canadians. I think a national conversation about how citizens choose our representatives and one that's driven by Parliament doesn't come around all that frequently. In our view, this should be a key opportunity for Canadians to get engaged in their democracy, to grow more familiar with the work of parliamentarians, and to feel that their opinions can be heard.
As the electoral discussion has unfolded this year, we have felt that most citizens face an uphill battle to understand what this debate is about, why it is important, and how they can get involved. Yes, there are some thorough Canadian reports and research studies already in existence, but many are long and use technical language. In response, Samara Canada decided to pull together the essential objective information on different electoral systems for Canadians getting up to speed on electoral reform. To ensure that this information was accurate and neutral, we worked with a political scientist, Stewart Prest, and five academic experts reviewed our report. Last week Samara released this report called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Electoral Reform” in both English and French.
I kindly asked the committee clerk to share the report with you last week. It is also available on Samara's website.
In short, it outlines how five possible electoral systems work in Canada. It includes first past the post, alternative vote, list proportional representation, mixed member proportional, and single transferable vote. The report also distills for Canadians the expert advice that this committee has heard. A selection includes advice that there is no best system and that each has its trade-offs, that partisan advantage is hard to predict in any change from an electoral system, that no system eliminates the need for Canadians to think strategically about their vote, and that we can learn from the experiences of other countries. We should not assume that an electoral system will work well for Canada just because it works well somewhere else.
While all members of this committee have essentially completed a crash course in electoral systems this summer—and I congratulate you—I want to remind the committee that most Canadians have not. I think most have yet to realize that electoral reform is an urgent issue before this Parliament, let alone the fact that the window for this committee to hear from them is quickly closely.
To help this committee meet its mandate to a truly inclusive consultation process with Canadians, we recommend that more resources be dedicated to the creation and communication of non-partisan information about electoral reform and that more time be provided for Canadians to access this information, to talk about it with others, and to participate in the consultation.
Samara's experience with the creation of our own report found that electoral reform is a complex issue to explain in an accessible manner, particularly when many options remain on the table. At 20-odd pages in length, we are well aware that our report will not serve everyone's information needs. For example, educational resources should be designed and distributed for high school teachers and their students, for audiences with limited literacy, for different types of learning needs. Moreover, some of these resources should be available in different languages in addition to English and French.
Pursuing public engagement without considering the public's educational needs risks attracting, by and large, the voices of the most motivated in the discussion—experts, partisans, and passionate advocates for one option or another. These voices matter, but such engagement is not inclusive enough. Moreover, when a promised engagement falls short, I fear that Canadians may end up more frustrated and further alienated with politics and their democracy.
Time is also needed for an effective consultation process. Not only is electoral reform complex, but right now it's not particularly urgent and will take time to capture Canadians' attention. In the eyes of a vast majority of Canadians, the 2015 election did not generate a crisis for Canadian democracy. In fact, Canadians turned out in numbers the nation had not seen for many years. Youth turnout was a particularly impressive story, with a full 18 percentage point jump up from 2011. The electoral results were widely accepted by the public. The past government peacefully made way for a new government.
This is not to say that discussing electoral reform is pointless at this juncture. Quite the contrary, I think it is vitally important that opportunities exist for Canadians, their MPs, and civil society to step back and consider improvements to our democratic system.
But Canadians now have less than six weeks until October 7 to share their views with you. This current deadline has been imposed by many factors, including the Chief Electoral Officer requiring two years to implement a new system, the fact that it takes several months for a bill to move through both House and Senate, and that in turn this committee needs time to thoughtfully analyze what it has heard in submissions.
Given the lack of a democratic crisis that demands a quick course of action, this committee should have a process that is slow, thoughtful, and rigorous. With more time, the quantity and quality of Canadians' participation in the discussion on electoral reform can improve. As such, with more time, it will also enhance the public's perception that this committee's consultations are credible and should carry significant weight in the eyes of government and of Parliament.
In conclusion, Samara urges this committee to recognize that meaningful national engagement on a subject like electoral reform requires that many citizens have a real chance to be informed and a chance to be heard. If the committee requires more time to meet its mandate, to consult inclusively among Canadians, this is a request that should be made and supported by Parliament and government.
I'd like to leave you with some final ideas for your consideration as well. Whether Canada changes our electoral system or not, the issue of electoral reform and the work of this committee has highlighted two trends.
First, there needs to be strengthened public education about Canada's democratic system, often called civic education or civic literacy. I think this is especially important if the electoral system changes. At present, citizenship education largely remains the purview of provincial education curricula and is typically incorporated into high school education programs. This is very helpful, but it isn't sufficient. Efforts are needed to reinforce civic knowledge through adulthood as well as during the integration of newcomers into Canada's public life. However, there are very few resources for nationwide efforts in Canada in civic education, nor is it clear who among government departments or agencies should be responsible for delivering on this goal.
Second, parliamentary committees and MPs are likely to be called on more and more frequently to consult with Canadians. Given that this committee is using all the tools at your disposal—social media, e-consultation, a cross-country tour, and input from MPs through their town halls—it would be of great value to capture lessons from this committee for future committees and MPs. Great public engagement and consultation takes planning, skill, communications, and relationship building, experience that this committee should start a conversation about on the capacity of Parliament to undertake public engagement effectively.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good evening, everyone.
Mr. Chair, distinguished members of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, ladies and gentlemen of Parliament, I would first like to thank the House of Commons and its members for creating and establishing the Special Committee on Electoral Reform and for the efforts you are making to consult the people and a variety of experts on this matter, which is so basic for the future of democracy.
The Institut du Nouveau Monde (INM) is pleased to present its vision to you. The vision comes from our expertise in citizen participation and from the range of consultations we have held with young people from 18 to 34 years of age who have taken part in our citizenship schools in recent years.
I will begin my presentation by providing you with some of the main observations on electoral participation by young people from 18 to 34 years of age. I will then present some bold reforms that seem to us to be essential in order to reverse the dramatic trend of declining electoral participation by Canadian youth.
First let me introduce myself and provide you with an overview of the Institut du Nouveau Monde. My name is Dominic Vézina. I am a strategic advisor for democratic institutions, citizen education and youth, a new position at the INM.
Founded in 2003, the INM is an independent, non-partisan organization, active mainly in Quebec, whose mission is essentially to increase citizen participation in democratic life. The INM operates from a perspective of social justice and inclusion, respecting democratic values and sustainable development principles, in a spirit of openness and innovation. The INM also publishes its annual L’état du Québec, a reference publication that analyzes the main social economic issues of the day in Quebec.
I now want to offer you some observations on electoral participation by young Canadians.
In recent decades, electoral participation by young Canadians has dropped sharply. An annual decline has now been confirmed for more than 40 years. Since the participation rate has gone from 70% in the 1960s to around 30% in 2004, it seems important to us to examine the matter and to take action in order to reverse this trend.
Even more concerning as a phenomenon is the constant, significant decline in the rate of initial participation in elections. By that we mean the decreasing participation of members of the new cohorts who are voting for the first time. This indicates a serious problem. It is the point at which we are breaking with our youth, a point that we have called generational suicide.
The literature we have consulted and summarized in our brief, in particular the studies by Elections Canada, provides information on the key determinants of youth voter turnout, or lack thereof. Whatever the case, all agree that it is imperative to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon by conducting national investigations and studies, both quantitative and qualitative, after each election.
That said, all available data point in the same direction: one of the most promising approaches to truly reversing the decline in young voter turnout is to increase initial voter turnout.
The INM supports the idea of reforming the current electoral system, but that change alone would not have the desired medium- and long-term impact. For the reform to be sustainable, it must, in our opinion, go hand in hand with an overall strategy aimed at improving young people’s skills in civics, starting in their teenage years.
In our view, the main public target must be those aged from 16 to 21. They are the ones who are just about to acquire the right to vote, or who will be voting for the first time. That is why civics education courses in high school, college and university have a central place in the strategy we are proposing to you today. Before we present that strategy, let us first summarize the key findings from the literature we have consulted.
We observe that, while certain socio-demographic characteristics—such as age, education and birthplace—have some influence over the decision of 18- to 34-year-olds to vote, there are three particularly influential factors: perceiving voting as a duty, taking an interest in politics, and being informed.
The key factors cited by young people as keeping them from voting are not the direct opposites of those motivating them to go to the polls. The two main reasons for 18- to 34-year-olds not voting are a lack of interest in politics and being too busy. The third reason for not voting varies with a subdivision of the age range: 18- to 24-year-olds blame problems with registering to vote, while 25- to 34-year-olds blame cynicism, a factor that seems to emerge later than the other factors analyzed.
What are the five bold reforms we are proposing?
I repeat that the INM supports reforming the current electoral system in order to increase young voter turnout. We also propose, in conjunction with all those involved, the complementary development of a comprehensive strategy to develop civic literacy among young people.
The INM proposes a bold strategy beginning with instituting a “civic rite of passage” in late adolescence. This strategy, informed by INM-led consultations, calls for major reforms. It is based on a renewed vision of democracy in which electoral participation is not only desired but expected and encouraged, and in which voting is not just a right but also a duty and a responsibility.
The civic rite of passage is based on five substantial reforms.
The first reform is a compulsory civics course in high school. Civic education is the surest way to get young people interested in politics. One of the main reasons young people do not vote is that they do not understand how politics affect them personally. A compulsory civics course should be given in Grade 9, while school is still compulsory, so that it is taught to everyone. As well, mock voting should be available to all students for each election.
All the studies show that, the sense of duty notwithstanding, young people vote if they are interested by politics and are informed. Those are the second and third reasons that explain why they vote.
Comparative studies, especially those by Henry Milner, show that voter turnout is larger in countries with a high average degree of political literacy. They also show that a dedicated compulsory civics course can make a difference. Norway and Sweden are excellent examples of this. General voter turnout in both countries is 85%, with young voter turnout at over 75%.
The second reform involves voting at 16. Lowering the voting age to 16 is then warranted. Young people will have just received civics education, preparing them to vote in an informed way. They are motivated and helped along the way. This is the start of the civic rite of passage we are proposing. All 16-year-olds, still in their classrooms, would vote together for the first time in an institutional context that supports their commitment. There should be a ceremony to celebrate their eligibility to vote, similar to the citizenship ceremony for new Canadians.
The third reform is voluntary civic service for 16- to 24-year-olds. It has been shown that commitment and participation produce even more commitment and participation. One way of supporting the commitment and the participation of young people once they have left school is to offer them the possibility of serving their communities in voluntary civic service.
The fourth reform that we are proposing is to make voting compulsory, with the option of casting a blank ballot. To emphasize the fact that voting is not only a right but also a duty, we believe that consideration should be given to compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is the policy in about 30 countries, including countries similar to ours, such as Belgium and Australia. Compulsory voting should allow for voluntary abstentions through what is called casting a blank ballot, allowing a voter to register a rejection of all the parties if none of them is appealing. Compulsory voting would also force all the parties to appeal not only to their base but to all voters, including young people.
The fifth reform is to implement a semi-proportional voting system. Research shows that one reason young people do not vote is that they feel their vote does not matter. The composition of Parliament therefore does not reflect the actual diversity of the electorate. Introducing a new voting system that includes a proportional aspect would give voters the sense that their vote matters.
Our basic belief is that youth voting is critical for the future of our democracy. We therefore hope that the committee's recommendations will not only make our electoral system more representative, but will also provide us with a better capacity to educate and motivate our young people in the exercise of citizenship.
In the INM’s view, restoring youth participation in democratic life should be a national priority.
What a privilege it is to be here in front of you. I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I've taken great joy in reading all the Hansard that's been released so far on your site, and then I spent the full day here just out of respect, because I know you had three sessions today and I just wanted to see what it would be like to show up at six to start work again.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Taylor Gunn: It seems as if everyone is in agreement that we're not experts on electoral reform, and I'm happy that we're honest, and that's the truth. So why would I be here? Fourteen years ago I'd heard that there were problems with voter turnout and there were hints that it was because of young people. I thought that maybe it wasn't the hardest thing to solve. It might have been because I was 24, and I thought that what we could do is simply to teach it in school like we teach everything else that no one wants to learn. We set out working on something that's now turned into 14 years. I was supposed to be a millionaire at this point, but we took the road less travelled. So I'll tell you a little about what we do.
We are a hundred times better at doing things than we are at talking about ourselves, so hopefully I can just tell you what we do and then we can trust that we might have a bit of expertise to offer you.
First, we thought that the most gripping teachable moment we could focus on was students under the voting age. Our main goal here is building the habits and skills of citizenship. We'd be using elections for that. Elections really are the biggest thing you can do out of politics. So we thought we could teach elections in school, and Student Vote is our flagship program. In a minute I'll go over some fun facts that I brought for you.
Basically, we empower teachers with educational resources. We've now expanded that to include online videos with the party leaders, who put democracy on the curriculum through the course of the campaign. This does not necessitate a curriculum fit. Instead, we try to find enthusiastic teachers who believe in the democratic process.
The key components of Student Vote include classroom learning, dialogue with parents, meeting the actual candidates through candidate forums—I know many of you were in them in your local schools, and I thank you for that—media consumption, and a vote on the actual candidates running in the schools' electoral district. The results of that are released through media and on television. We started in 800 schools in Ontario in 2003, and in last fall's federal election we surpassed half of all schools in the country, registering to participate 922,000 kids, who cast a Student Vote ballot.
I say that to you because throughout this, the underlying theme from Kingsley and Mayrand and Rose to the New Zealand CEOs and the two guys from Ireland is the necessity of civic education at all times, and especially in a process like this.
I worry that you're going to say that we need more civic education without knowing what progress has already been made. That's what we do around elections. We've got up to half of all the schools participating. The point is to be in every school one day, reaching every student at every election. That's how we would truly build a habit just like how you teach kids math.
We know from independent evaluations that we're having positive impacts on teacher confidence and ability to deliver Student Vote. Students are having an impact on knowledge and interest. What is now being shown is that the more they do Student Vote, the better outcomes they have. It just makes sense, but that's the goal of doing this repetitively.
What we've got now is our second indication that kids may be supporting their parents' going to the polls. The recent feedback we got that hasn't been released yet is that close to 30% of parents attributed their decision to vote to their kids' participating in Student Vote. That matters when you talk about 922,000 families. What we do know when we did the math is that 2.5 million kids who went through Student Vote in the past were eligible to vote in this recent election. That does not show any link to increasing voter turnout, but that's where our base is now—above 18.
Just for fun, I wanted to say congratulations to Elizabeth. You were ranked fifth in the number of kids casting a Student Vote ballot in your riding, at more than 6,000 students. Blake, in Banff, at just under 6,000, was in the number 10 spot; and Matt was at 5,500, in Fredericton. That matters, because you want to see that grow over time. I also think it makes you care about young people in your electoral district, and I am trying to put pressure on you to care about them.
What else do we do? We run programs around budgets—very high level, much less mass reach, but we use political actors, like the Minister of Finance; lobby groups, like the Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress; and finally the party leaders. Their job is to weigh in, to pitch to kids what they want to see in the budget, and then kids give those opinions back to Finance and the public. You might be shocked to know that three years in a row they felt the best thing they could do with Canada's money was pay down the debt.
We run another program called Rep Day. Some of you, and then all of you by next week, will receive an invitation to participate in Rep Day. I know some of you already did. Last year, 45% of all MPs went into their local schools, with our administrative support, the purpose being for you to humanize our democratic process. It is really easy to dislike politicians, but maybe you ask, “What about Alain?” “Oh, I know Alain. He is a great guy.” That is what we are trying to show to kids, that they can access our process through their elected representatives.
Finally, what we do is train teachers. The point of training teachers is to really seed the system with ambassadors of the democratic process who also have the capability to effectively deliver civic education programs. That comes maybe just to some summaries. When you think about civic education— and it may come up in questioning—don't depend on the curriculum. The curriculum can be poorly taught. It can be taught by teachers who aren't really meant to teach that subject, but they have been trained so they can do the things they like. Schools are political places.
It really matters who is teaching what, how they are teaching it—we would suggest that it is always experiential learning—and when they teach it. Maybe you don't want to teach an election when it isn't going on. I would also ask every educator, why aren't you doing an election simulation when there is one going on?
Then, of course, we have structural challenges. Some school boards now don't want politicians in for candidates' forums during elections. That is absolutely terrible. Do you know why? It is because—you might have seen it in the book—we can fill an auditorium in front of candidates with 400 or 500 people. I'll put some money down that you don't get that in your usual Chamber of Commerce debate.
Tips for the committee....
What is my time like?
Perfect. I'm so happy that everyone wasn't nice. I was worried, because we're all non-profits and we need funding, and sometimes you just have to be honest. I think it's time that you took the training wheels off. I think you've had a great go at learning how you might do this, but this is the type of thing that is just the coolest, biggest, greatest opportunity for our democracy. I'm starting to get a sense now of how special our democracy is, because we're starting to be pulled in our work to look at other places around the world.
The student vote programs don't actually go that well in other places, or they're non-existent. I see things happen in places like Mexico, where candidates who are open about the cartels are shot on their first day of being mayor. I think that when it comes to something like this, let's stop talking about New Zealand as the leader. We should be the leader in this.
I would suggest and point out to you that you've been disempowered by time, obviously. I had to plead with Mr. Reid and Mr. Cullen, and Mr. Holland who was here earlier, to change the submission date for the town halls...if you picked up on them from October 1 to after the Thanksgiving break week...because I thought you were purposely ignoring future voters in your consultations. It might have been an accident, just as there was an accident in the Fair Elections Act that Elections Canada couldn't help facilitate our doing our work, so I get that, but I think you could engage so many more people with more time and more resources. I'm still wondering what's going on with that $10 million. You don't have it, right? I think maybe you shouldn't have it. I don't know if I should trust that you'll spend it that well, but I don't know if the best place is in PCO or Democratic Institutions. I think you need to be more empowered.
I also think this is just a plain awesome thing that you could time around Canada150. It's not a playlist for exercises. I don't know what else is going on, but it's really one of the most important things we could do. It's about who we are. What a great opportunity to maybe extend and empower this dialogue. I think you'd at least have groups like us who have incredible access to the education system. Samara has an incredible volunteer network, and other actors across the country, and INM has a great hold in Quebec, who could support you and act as allies. I think you would get some incredibly passionate people putting in 16 hours a day on this to support your effort.
After reading all the testimony, sometimes I don't know who to believe. I'm sure you face the same thing. I just doubt you could come out with a really clear recommendation to take a particular system. I would just find that hard, after reading the testimony. I don't have a university degree, so you could write me off, but....
I'm interested to see what happens and then I will invite you or I'll let you know.... We couldn't do what we wanted to do, but we scraped together a few funds and we're working to put together a series of five videos: one, an introduction video just to introduce kids to why we're even talking about this; and then four others going into different systems. We hope to have them released by the third week of September, so that if you wanted to go into a high school in your community and have kids talk about this in a substantial way, we'll have something for you to do that. We've just sent out the invitations.
That's a great idea, Mr. Chair. I think that's fantastic.
Going along with that, I definitely take very seriously the advice that you have for all of us. I enjoyed your presentations, your enthusiasm to engage young people. I share in that enthusiasm. We definitely do not want to disenfranchise young people. It's quite the opposite; we want to engage them.
I think the Youth Council is the most amazing thing ever. On my personal campaign, I engaged quite a lot with youth. I think the fact that volunteer hours are mandatory for high schools now helps drive a lot of youth to come out and find opportunities. That may happen accidentally at first, but once they join a campaign, whichever one it is—I'm sure everyone from all parties benefited from young people looking for volunteer opportunities—they become engaged and interested in the process and what's happening.
I have found, though, that a lot of schools are reluctant to let us in even after you become an elected official. There are teachers who go above and beyond; they really want you to come in, and they try to manoeuvre a way that we can come into the classroom. In the area I'm from, I've faced quite a lot of challenges—even writing to the schools—just to go in to talk to the classes.
I have read that if you catch them at a young age and you go in to speak.... We don't have to be speaking about parties. Most of the questions that come from them are not about parties. They're usually about what you do, or what life in politics is like, what you have to do to get there, and a lot of other questions about voting. There are so many interesting questions that young people have. I think it can really turn around the engagement process for them and make it exciting.
There were mock elections in my area during this campaign, and that was really interesting. As I went door to door, I saw kids who would open the door and they thought you were like a rock star. They would be more excited than the parent. They would move the parent out of the way and say they were learning about me, this is what's happening, this is what this platform is about, and this is this party's platform. It was incredible to see. I congratulate all of you for the work you do in trying to promote this to young people.
Do you have any suggestions? I know some of you have talked about voter age and some have talked about compulsory voting. For this committee, do you think there's any one thing you would recommend we do above all to increase voter participation? As you know, reading from the blues, we've heard a lot of contradictory evidence from so many witnesses. It's hard for us to figure out at this point what it is we should be doing to increase voter participation.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair,
Ms. Hilderman, Mr. Vézina, Mr. Gunn, thank you very much for being here today. I really appreciated your presentations, as well as your energy, your passion and your interest in young people and their civic and social engagement.
You are absolutely right; there are some deficiencies in Quebec and Canadian society regarding knowledge and understanding of our electoral system and our parliamentary system. Too many people we meet still think we have a presidential system. People think they're voting for Harper, Trudeau or Mulcair. We have to tell them that that's not the case, that they must vote for their local MP and the number of seats won by each party is calculated to determine which party will form the government and whether it has a majority in Parliament.
Mr. Vézina, I support most of the five points in your program aimed at improving youth voter turnout. One thing that I really want to emphasize, because I want it stated publicly, is that I strongly support the idea of offering an introductory course on citizenship and democracy in high school. That is probably the best path to take. However, before our Bloc Québécois friends overreact, I want to clarify that neither this committee nor any federal legislation will interfere in the prerogatives of the National Assembly regarding education. I can come out and say that what you're proposing is a good idea, but it will not be part of our recommendations, for reasons that you are familiar with and understand very well.
You said that young people feel as though their vote won't make a difference. Indeed, it is more than just an impression. All too often, that is the reality in our voting system. Many members are elected with 30% or 32% of the vote in their riding. This means that 70% of voters are seeing their votes tossed out.
Your fifth point is about introducing a semi-proportional voting system. How would that help solve the problem identified earlier?
As I understand it, you are inquiring about the idea of the per vote subsidy, that every vote cast is worth something, as a donation to a political party that you're casting your vote for, in order to make your vote count. I understand that this has only recently been phased out.
I think your point is a good one: parties, in doing their job, have a unique place in our democracy. It's a very important job: to compete in elections, to be the vehicles for political participation, to sit in Parliament if they're elected, and then help make decisions. It does take resources to do that effectively. I don't think Canadians have a very good understanding right now of how party financing works in Canada. In fact, everyone who pays taxes subsidizes political parties today, because anyone who makes a donation can get a tax receipt, and that tax receipt how we Canadians are subsidizing political parties as entities.
The challenge then, of course, is if we subsidize the largest donations more than the smaller donations. We know that very few Canadians, relative to the whole population, make donations to political parties. I think that is the appeal behind the notion of a per vote subsidy, in that everyone at least gets to make some donation to a party. It's compelling as an incentive to think that your vote counts for something more. I also think it helps parties maybe think a little differently about their fundraising direction.
It might be interesting, then, how we might step back and consider the whole system of electoral and party finance. It's time we thought a bit more about what we want from parties in exchange for support from the public, which I think is necessary, as I said, for strong political parties to play their role in our democracy.
I join with all my colleagues around the table in applauding the witnesses for their presentations, their commitment and the passion they show when they speak to this issue, and undoubtedly, as they do their work within their respective organizations.
Mr. Gunn, congratulations. Like many of my colleagues, I have also participated in meetings with students in schools. I want to congratulate you on all your hard work, on your analysis of the situation and, much like the two other witnesses, on recognizing the importance of education. You've given us, and all politicians, a real lesson here today. I hope the committee will have the maturity to properly document all your comments in the drafting of its final report.
Ms. Hilderman, I have been a member of this committee for a week. I wasn't part of its past work, but I did have a chance to follow that work from a distance and read a lot of the literature. This is the first time I have seen a non-partisan citizen engagement organization refrain from taking a stance on this issue and remain completely neutral. You could have easily fallen into that trap when you answered the last question, but you didn't take the bait and still remained neutral. For that, I applaud you.
I find your document to be quite interesting. It explores all aspects and lets people objectively form their own opinion. As politicians, we are all biased, whatever our opinion may be of these issues. We all want to improve our democracy, but we all have our own interests in that regard.
I have a proposal to make. If, one day, we had someone else in the position of Minister for Democratic Reform and he or she needed someone to provide advice or host meetings, we would seek someone who is completely neutral, that is, someone like you. Your presentation was fantastic in that regard. I particularly liked the passage that reads, “Yet dissatisfaction with how democracy functions is not only a Canadian phenomenon”.
It is often implied that Canada is the only place having problems in this area. However, if you look at global trends surrounding voter turnout, it's declining everywhere—and I want to stress this point—regardless of the voting method used. Indeed, this is not only a Canadian phenomenon. It's wrong to say that a mixed member proportional system will solve everything.
You emphasized this nicely in the passage that reads, “Indeed, countries who use other electoral systems continue to have citizens who express frustration with politics. In other words, changing the electoral system does not guarantee a significant boost in satisfaction with the way democracy works.” This explains the importance of education that you have all mentioned.
Mr. Vézina, I want to make a small correction to something you said. A party does not win a majority government in Canada with just 32% or 33% of the vote, but rather 39% or 40% of the vote. In our case, we experienced this, since we won 32% or 33% of the vote, and we are in opposition.
You talked a lot about people who support a mixed member proportional system or any proportional system and people who say that their vote doesn't count under the current system. However, when we spoke to people who live in Scotland—as Mr. Gunn mentioned, and rightly so—they told us that despite declining voter turnout, the issues are what really had an impact on their interest.
You indicated this in your presentation, but you only added this aspect at the very end. Experts have expressed their views on the main reasons for the public’s lack of interest in politics. Personally, I haven't heard many people saying they thought their vote didn't count. Rather, a small group of people really interested in politics are the ones saying that after elections. When they're happy with the results, of course there's no longer a problem.
I'm wondering if you could expand on the points mentioned on page 4 of your document, aspects that really have a direct impact on people's willingness to get out and vote, regardless of their age group. Could you clarify that for us?
It was pretty well the most complex research piece to put together and consider, given how much has been spent on studying different electoral systems in different parts of the world, and also applied in Canada under different consultations, whether in B.C. or Ontario or New Brunswick.
That's why in part we wanted to work with Stewart Prest, a political scientist from UBC, to help us pull together what we thought were the most essential details. That's why we came up with what are the questions you should ask Canadians? How does this work? What does it mean for voters? What does it mean for parties in Parliament? What does it mean for governing? Frame it as a question and answer to help organize the information as succinctly as possible. Then we tried to carefully pick our language so it was as unbiased as it could be, as factually based as we felt we be about the system and how it would work in Canada, with as plain language as possible.
Even then, it's still a thick report. It's not something you can read in five minutes. You still have to dedicate some time to dig into it, but we tried to design it in a way that was inviting to bring Canadians into the report. Since we released it just last week, we've had well over 200 downloads from all corners of the country, from offices of members of Parliament, I'm very pleased to report—who I hope are using it at their town halls—but also libraries, community groups, and any Canadians who have found their way to this report.
What we are really trying to do now, through the next month, is to push it out through community networks to umbrella organizations that have members in different parts of the country. Essentially, the most important page in here I think is how to get involved in the conversation. We outline how to participate in this committee through social media, through your e-consultations. That information is really important to share right now, so we're relying on our networks and other networks to do that work for us.
If we had more time and resources, it would be great to think about translating it to the needs of other learners, making it shorter for ESL learners, making it more engaging with video and the like. There's a rich realm of possibilities, but we're not going to be able to do that in the time and with the resources we have on this one.
This is more of a comment than a question. I think it makes sense to start with a by-election, rather than a general election, for reasons of scale and because the consequences of some kind of mess are reduced.
I think that electronic voting, like the postal ballot, has to be a supplement as opposed to a replacement for the other ways of voting. That's just an observation.
I have something else to mention. Young voters who have moved recently—and young people do move more frequently—are more likely not to know where their voting station is or not to have received a card from Elections Canada telling them where their voting station is.
I heard a story about trying to get greater student participation that makes this point in an experiment to find out whether people would be more motivated to go to get something good, such as a tetanus shot, by getting informational advertising or advertising that was fear-based, such as horrible photos of people with lockjaw and so on. This was back in the sixties. Professors then did what professors always do, and experimented with the student body. They sent out, to different parts of the campus, different ads about the free tetanus shots that students could get at the student centre. The results were so unimpressive for both groups that they had to drop it.
Then the idea was picked up again at another university, but this time they included a map of how to get to the student centre—and surprise, surprise, the number of participants went way up. Knowing either where you should go to vote or that you can vote from home makes.... I guess I'm pitching something as opposed to asking questions.
Maybe you could comment on that.
Mr. Vézina, I want to try to address a few things related to your expertise.
I have been teaching democracy for 30 years. Before I was an MP, I was a teacher. On a personal level, independent of my party, I wonder about this. I have often wondered about lowering the voting age to 16, and I still have mixed feelings about it.
First of all, how do we prevent a young 16-year-old from becoming an MP? Constitutionally, it's not possible. That could happen, that is, we wouldn't be able to prevent that from happening. The same is true of 18-year-olds.
People mature quite a bit between the ages of 16 and 18. I taught students early on in CEGEP, and in the same day, other students near the end of CEGEP, and a great deal of maturing happens during those years.
Figures on student voter turnout and that of their parents are fairly similar. Acquiring the right to vote is a solemn occasion. That's when individuals seal their social contract. I support training programs. I know it's very tempting to think that since they've been given all that and they've really acquired it, if we let them vote, they'll get a taste for it. Then their training would be complete. I understand that, but as a society, I tell myself something else. In any case, I want to hear your thoughts on that. How can you convince me?
Thank you. It was a treat, it was really fun, seriously, and maybe that'll apply to how I answer this.
When I was a youth, I didn't feel special. I always caution about thinking that, “Oh, that's a young person. We need to wear a funky T-shirt”, or this sort of stuff. What could be more interesting for them to say than, “Oh, my gosh, mum and dad”, or “Hey, boyfriend, I was in front of these old stiffs in suits today talking about electoral reform and they're on this special committee and some of them are going to go back to the Prime Minister and some of them.... That's really cool.”
What you have is the fact that you will go as a body to places. I don't know if you have a calendar set up. I don't know what instructional material you'll be using, so it's not just top of mind.
Would you like help getting into schools? I know you've got a couple, and I know there are several terrific teachers in Fredericton, for example. I don't know if you'd do a whole assembly, but you could do a classroom. You might be too many—but who cares, just approach it honestly. I don't know if you have a schedule that you could share or if you might want connections to schools. That's what the longer process would give you.
You could make sure that you're going in with materials and that the class has been primed by maybe three to four classes, so that when when they come in, they won't just be saying, of course there should be PR because percentage seems fairer. Let's get into the complexities of that. It's like multi-member districts, all this neat stuff. I would suggest that you need a bit more than just half an afternoon with free sandwiches and a Coke. Great. I missed class today.