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Alison Loat

Let's not blame youth for general voter apathy Add to ...

I have a prediction. There will be an election some time in the future. Whether fall or spring, winter or summer, either this year or next, Canadians will go to the polls.

I have another prediction. About that same time, pundits will lament the declining interest in politics, particularly among young Canadians.

On one hand, their laments are justified. A paper commissioned by Elections Canada attributed the decline in voter rates in Canada, as in other countries, to lower turnout among the young. This decline has been under way for decades.

Yet, these laments are simplistic. Blaming youth is one of the oldest tricks in the book and, in this case, akin to shooting the messenger. What voting statistics appear to convey is really a symptom of a wider sense of malaise about the fabric of our public life. Perhaps youth are the first to tell us they don't like the quality of the product on offer.

To understand how we got here, remember that today's under-35s became politically aware at a time of great uncertainty about the future of the country. The bulk of these years was dominated by debates over Quebec's place in Canada and how Canada should be governed, followed by federal and provincial budget cutbacks.

At the same time that the world was opening up - the Internet became commonplace, trade was liberalized and international exchange was encouraged - our governments were preoccupied with these important but, ultimately, inward-looking matters.

Budget cuts were necessary, but they're hardly inspiring. They carried with them the implicit message, "Sorry, we're not able to do anything for [insert tough challenge here]" Interested in working in the public sector to make change? "Sorry, we're not hiring. Please go elsewhere."

Discussing how we can live together on fair and equitable terms is, indeed, tremendously important. But our national conversations were increasingly regionalized and polarized at a time when consciousness of the global nature of our public problems grew. In a land of relative prosperity, it was hard to understand why we weren't able to get along.

Together with the broader decline in trust for public institutions experienced in most Western democracies, our inward focus produced alienation from government and promoted cynicism that the public sector is not a place to make change.

We didn't get into this overnight, and we won't get out of it overnight, either.

As a first step, we must have a broader and deeper discussion on the sources of this apparent apathy that goes beyond blaming lazy, incompetent young people. Rumour has it that there are elements of lethargy and ineptitude in all generations. This is surely not at the heart of the matter.

As a second step, we need to acknowledge that there is plenty of blame to go around. All of us - political leaders, the media and individual citizens - have taken the easy way out from time to time. Each of us can pull up our socks.

On some of the toughest public challenges we face, political leaders are in a place to lead and must have the courage to do so. We're trapped in a web of short-termism, expecting quick answers to problems where there aren't easy answers. Politicians have to resist the urge to appeal to these instincts and lead honest conversations about what lies ahead.

The media and citizens also need to give political leaders the opportunity and space to be truly effective. Imagine if all journalists and news organizations saw their job not just to scrutinize or entertain but also to elucidate the tough decisions we face. Imagine if, when offered such insight, citizens showed greater enthusiasm for the prospect of action and a willingness to contribute to it.

We need an environment that is more tolerant of ambiguity, more willing to discuss and less willing to accept mediocrity if we want to make progress and attract the best people to improving our public condition.

Might we consider that the blame belongs not simply on the shoulders of youth and, instead, recognize that all actors in our public discourse, including the media and political and business leaders, need to carefully consider the example their tone and actions set?

If that were the case, we may find it's not only young people who are inspired.

Alison Loat is the co-founder and executive director of Samara, an organization dedicated to the idea that public service and public leadership matter.

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