Canadians unconvinced that voting actually matters: poll

TORONTO, ONTARIO - FEBRUARY 9, 2016 - PM Justin Trudeau greets the Liberal supporters at an event where he joined Premier Kathleen Wynne for a by election rally to support Liberal candidate Elizabeth Roy in Whitby-Oshawa's byelection campaign, which ends with Thursday's vote.        (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
PM Justin Trudeau greets the Liberal supporters at an event on February 9, 2016. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

A national survey conducted by Simon Fraser University finds that while most Canadians value democracy over any other type of governance, almost half of them don’t feel connected to the country’s approach to it.

The newly released poll, which was conducted by the school’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, found a rebound in Canadians preference for democracy, compared to prior polls. In 2017, 65 per cent of those polled said they preferred democracy over any other form of government, compared to the recent poll, which found 77 per cent were in favour. That could be interpreted as a reaction to the current state of affairs, internationally.

“We’ve seen a number of threats to a number of countries,” lead researcher Daniel Savas told Yahoo Canada. “It may well be that Canadians are waking up to the fact that they have to start thinking about what their democracy is and what it means to be living in one.”

While the change in Canadians’ temperature on democracy can be interpreted as encouraging, the poll also revealed a number of alarm bells. For example, 44 per cent of people appear unconvinced that voting matters when it comes to how the country is being run. A majority of Canadians — 56 per cent — think there’s not much that can be done to influence government, even if an effort is made. And 68 per cent of Canadians believe that elected officials don’t really care what people like them think.

“While you have people preferring democracy, you have this sense among Canadians that the system isn’t working, that they are unsure they can have a meaningful voice in how government runs things,” said Savas. “They’re also not convinced the interest of ordinary Canadians are being paid attention to by government. Sixty-one per cent think their interests are being ignored by government in favour of the establishment.”

The appeal of populism in Canada is also explored in the poll, and whether or not we’re vulnerable to the same forces of anti-democratic populism that’s rampant elsewhere in the world. It found that 79 per cent of Canadians would be more likely to vote for a candidate that pits the common people against the elite.

“It’s not too surprising given the other belief that government is ignoring ordinary Canadians interests in favour of the establishments,” Savas said. “One could argue that that particular result is a reasonable populist argument, it wouldn’t necessarily be considered antidemocratic. However, it can be exploited for antidemocratic purposes, which is what we’re concerned about.”

While Canadians are vulnerable to the populist messaging from other parts of the world, Savas said the majority of us soundly reject candidates who discredit the media for being bias or creating “fake news”. Seventy-one percent said they’d be far less likely to vote for a candidate who promoted strong anti-government views, and 58 per cent were less likely to vote for someone who attacked the media.

“While you have this vulnerability to populist sentiment on one hand, you also have the rejection of some of the other populist messaging around the media and the ‘drain the swamp’ messaging” said Savas.

The poll is part of a pan-Canadian initiative called Strengthening Canadian Democracy, which aims to figure out how to strengthen Canadians’ commitment to democracy.