According to any international democracy index you look at, Canada's democracy is consistently ranked among the top 10 in the world. On standard indicators of democratic health –such as the protection of civil liberties, control of corruption, or a free and accessible electoral process– Canadian democracy scores very high. By all comparative standards, Canada has an enviable record of good governance.
That being said, we cannot be complacent. In my view, there are two areas where the health of our democracy is increasingly under pressure. One of these is citizen engagement; the other is citizens' trust in their electoral institutions.
First, with respect to citizen engagement, on the most basic democratic indicator – voter turnout – Canada has been in steady decline for over two decades. Turnout fell to a record low of 58% in the 2008 election. And while it rebounded slightly in 2011, we are still well below the historical post-war average of 75%..................
Declining voter turnout might be the most striking example of citizen disengagement in Canada, but it's not the only one. Very few Canadians play an active part in election campaigns or belong to political parties. Indeed, the role of political parties has changed significantly over the years. The growing professionalization of political parties and the growing difficulty they have in recruiting volunteers and members has an impact on how election campaigns are run.
My second reason for concern is prompted by certain recent events that could undermine public trust in the electoral process. I am speaking of allegations of deceptive phone calls during the May 2011 general election and of the ongoing legal challenge regarding irregularities at the polls in the riding of Etobicoke Centre. As a result of these issues, over the past months, we have seen the interplay between some of the most important institutions in our country: Parliament, political parties, the media, electoral bodies and the courts, including the Supreme Court. And at the heart of this interplay is our electoral system and our democracy....................
Much of the decline in voter turnout is the result of generational replacement. Put simply, today's young Canadians are much less likely to vote than their parents or grandparents were at the same age. In 1965, about two-thirds of first-time electors voted in their first election. By1984, just over half of first-time electors were voting. And by 2004, that number had fallen to just over one-third. At the same time, today's young electors are also more likely to become habitual non-voters. Together, these two trends are the driving force behind a systemic and long-term voter decline that is quickly approaching 50%..................
The other problem relates to trust. Events during the May 2011 general election have led to more pointed questions regarding the quality of our electoral system, and this concerns me.Here again, context is important. The heavy focus on problems – whether it be the so-called robocalls issue or the procedural failures in Etobicoke Centre – overshadows a far less newsworthy but incredibly important fact: the last general election, by and large, went very well. And the vast majority of voters – more than 95% according to our post-election survey – were satisfied with their experience and the services provided at the polls.......................
As the election administrator,I accept responsibility for what occurred in Etobicoke Centre and my agency is conducting the necessary reviews to avoid similar situations in the future. But while we can make administrative changes to enhance our processes, these likely won't be enough. Legislative changes may also be necessary to respond to Canadians' concerns regarding the electoral process and make the system less prone to errors.
At the same time, new technologies have changed the approach used by parties and candidates to communicate with electors. These technologies are not, in themselves, problematic and in fact can and are used in positive ways to reach out to electors. However, I am concerned by how they can be misused during an election.
As we have seen this past year, deceptive telephone calls, both live and automated, have arrived on our electoral landscape and their use will have an impact on how Canadians view the electoral system.
We know that Canadians were rightfully offended by news reports regarding possible electoral fraud relating to such calls, and they need to know and trust that there is a process in place to address these issues. In this regard, I will be bringing forward recommendations to ensure that the Canada Elections Act has the right measures to deal with this new reality.
I feel strongly that an electoral system and an electoral law that do not reflect the concerns and values of a modern Canadian electorate will only, in the long term, help fuel disillusionment and disengagement from the political process. That is why modernizing the Canada Elections Act speaks to our need to maintain the integrity of the electoral process in order to ensure trust and encourage civic engagement.
However, prompt action is required. At best, we have a 12- to 18-month window of opportunity to integrate any new changes, including legislation, into the preparations for the 42nd general election to be held in 2015...............
As you can see, these issues are all interconnected. If we do not act to address the problems identified in the last election, there is a risk that trust in our electoral process will be undermined and this could further fuel declining citizen engagement................
ConclusionBuilding and maintaining a healthy democracy is a responsibility we all share – citizens, political parties, electoral management bodies, Parliament and the media.
How we choose to react to these issues today will define the scope of the problem for generations to come.
When I look at students returning to school, when I speak to young Canadians preparing themselves for their future, and when I listen to concerned Canadians who care about our democracy, I think it is something that we can no longer delay.
I must admit to finding his call for speedy action rather ironic given the speed with which the various “allegations” of voter fraud and interference have apparently been investigated, however he is correct in saying that it is a responsibility we all share – even if there is little that we the voter can do about it until the next election.
The above is just a few extracts of a much longer speech which may be read here on the Elections Canada web site.
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