Sunday, October 19, 2008

Thoughts on voting and why Jack Layton should have let me run his campaign

Another election come and gone, and the shift in the political landscape is both so slight and so expected that one might feel that not voting was forgivable. And indeed it would have been, except for one small problem: not voting is unforgivable.

I polled my second-year class last Thursday, and about half of my students admitted to not voting. (To be fair, only one person in my fourth-year class didn’t vote, so either my senior students are more politically conscientious or more dishonest. I choose to believe the former). This pathetic turnout does not, alas, come as a surprise, as the apathy of voters in the 18-25 range is an oft-repeated statistic around election time. And as Rick Mercer pointed out in a recent rant, it is exactly this apathy that gives government carte blanche to ignore the concerns of young Canadians—and that if they should ever get their shit together and represent at the ballot box, they’d be a force to be reckoned with.

Of course, many see this seeming antipathy to voting as evidence of a more pervasive apathy and narcissism on the part of the Facebook generation. This perception is not however borne out in reality: 15-24 year olds, according to Statistics Canada, are the most likely of all age groups to be volunteering their time; fifty-five percent volunteer an average of 139 hours a year, and four out of five in that age group follow the news on a regular basis. Indeed, as Patrick White notes in last weekend’s Globe and Mail, the very digital culture often decried as the source of apathy in fact facilitates and aids this activism.

This energy does not however translate into voting, apparently. Why? The most obvious answer lies in a comparison between our recent election and the upcoming American one. Barack Obama has mobilized the youth vote in a way many (and I grudgingly include myself with this cynical lot) once thought unlikely, if not actually impossible. Young voters in the U.S. have responded with extraordinary enthusiasm to a charismatic and eloquent candidate, and to an exceptionally deft use of internet and wireless technology—their lingua franca—as a key campaign tool. The Obama campaign has consistently caught his opponents flat-footed in this specific area, and have changed the nature of campaigning as a result.

In terms of having a candidate who energizes the electorate, this can and has happened here. Drop a Trudeau into the mix and see what happens (figuratively speaking—as likeable and attractive as Justin is, I have yet to see evidence of his father’s intellect, charisma and audacity).

It would also, of course, help to speak to the youth vote to get those voters interested—which is why I would have liked to have been Jack Layton’s campaign manager in either of our last two elections.

Jack (I’d say to him), listen here: you can talk all you want about running for prime minister, but honestly, no one takes that seriously. You’re not going to be PM. But as the saying goes, you’re not going to win, so you can’t lose. And seriously: repeating the same-old NDP talking points isn’t going to win over anyone not already inside your camp.

What you can do is mobilize the most traditionally apathetic group of voters in a way that will have Harper and Dion running scared. And you can do that by making the central plank of your campaign platform about post-secondary education and the funding for it. To wit, a three-point plan:

1. Amnesty on all extant student loans.
2. Nation-wide tuition freezes, and tuition rollbacks on the most expensive universities and colleges.
3. The re-introduction of national grants for exceptional and low-income students.

Unveil this three-point plan—hell, just unveil the first point!—and you will see young Canadians respond like never before.

Of course, the other parties will attack this plan as a stunt ... which, admittedly, it sort of is. HOWEVER—and this is a big however—there are very real reasons why this plan is a good idea. I’m no economist, but it strikes me that there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of twenty- and thirty-somethings paying hundreds of dollars a month in student loans. Pop quiz: what would be a better economic stimulus, relieving young people of a proportionally massive financial burden that prevents them from investing or buying houses, or a tax break for higher-income Canadians?

Furthermore, you can frame this plan not as a handout but as investment in the knowledge economy. Remind Messrs. Harper and Dion that the greatest period of economic expansion and prosperity in North America exactly coincided with the greatest expansion of and enrolment in post-secondary institutions. Say as well that greater funding for universities and colleges will allow them to raise academic standards because they won’t be as obsessed with student retention. Speaking as an English professor, I can attest to the fine line we walk between maintaining academic rigor and not scaring off students by being too rigorous. Our funding is tied to enrolment: we are thus, both implicitly and explicitly, enjoined from flunking out too many students or driving them into other programs by being too demanding. By giving universities and colleges more breathing room to reduce class sizes, hire new faculty and raise academic standards, we improve the quality of our graduates—which only benefits the country and the economy.

Keep in mind here that I am no neutral observer, but an academic and thus deeply invested in the health and vigour of this country’s universities and colleges. That being said however, I’d stake a lot on the bet that this strategy would result in the best NDP showing at the federal level ever. You might even become the official Opposition. Meanwhile, however much the other parties might honk about gimmicks and stunts, they would have no choice but to respond—and then they’re playing by your script, forced to court the voters you’ve energized.

Of course, I’m not Jack Layton’s campaign manager, and am unlikely ever to be. But to anyone in the 18-25 age range reading this—both those who voted and those who did not—I challenge you all to make this a critical issue in the next election. Because, hey ... it’s a minority government again. An election could happen any day now.


dree said...

Another thing that you could add to this platform would be tax deductions for non-government loans (well, ok, this wouldn't be necessary if amnesty were given).

I am still paying off $50K of loans acquired getting my M.S. in the US...nine years ago. Half the loans were gov't loans, half were student lines of credit. Yet I can only claim the interest paid on the gov't portion. Not fair!

Brian Van Tilborg said...

". Amnesty on all extant student loans.
2. Nation-wide tuition freezes, and tuition rollbacks on the most expensive universities and colleges.
3. The re-introduction of national grants for exceptional and low-income students."

Good points, so with the NDP leading the way in Education Grants, Tuition rollbacks, and Loan Forgiveness.... I didn't see any rush of University students chomping at the bit to vote, for anyone.

But at least the ideas are right whether the youth bother to vote in their interests or not.

Kate said...

Wow, that's a really bad idea. I'm a student and I would never vote for Layton based on that plan. Voting based on one's own narrow interests is never very responsible, particularly during an economic crisis, when voters should consider other more vulnerable members of the populace(such as seniors with pensions). I'd have about as much respect for myself voting for that platform as for my peer who votes Conservative because she supports the military.

I actually find that plan kind of insulting and I'm sure if you asked your students they would probably give similar responses. It does sum up the NDP, though--all flash and no substance.