Three party leaders and a Conservative MP attracted a large throng of students to the University of Ottawa this week, the politicians' admirable purpose being to encourage more young people to vote.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and the very sensible Conservative MP Michael Chong said all the right things, insisting that young people can make a difference in politics. The event was organized by Kevin Page, the former Parliamentary Budget Officer who is now a professor at the university. He hopes to repeat the effort, called iVote-jeVote, at other campuses.
Perhaps young people could make their presence felt by voting in greater numbers, but this message has been delivered before, and delivered often, without much response. As pollster Nik Nanos showed at the beginning of the event, people between 18 and 24 vote in far, far smaller numbers than people over 65. Why?
Overall, voting turnout is down. But not every age cohort is voting less. The major reason for the overall lower turnout is the collapse of voting among young people. Older people are voting in roughly the same numbers as before; young people have turned off political parties and electoral politics.
One argument suggests that people don't start paying attention to civic/political matters until they begin paying taxes. Yes and maybe, because that explanation would not explain why a larger share of young people used to vote.
Perhaps people are staying in school longer and, as such, are preoccupied with their courses and exams for more years. Yes and maybe again, because although more people are attending university than ever, the majority of people under 25 still do not attend university.
Mr. Nanos's numbers suggest one possible reason for this youthful disinterest. Older people are concerned about health care and jobs, so that's what parties talk about. Younger voters seem more interested in the environment and education.
Today, all parties are focused on what Mr. Trudeau calls the "anxieties of the middle class." They offer little bribes and tax credits to help people with their bills. Even the New Democrats have joined in this small-ball politics. It's hard to imagine any twentysomething voter being remotely interested in this kind of vote-shopping.
From a strictly partisan perspective, the Conservatives have scant reason for wanting more young voters, since these voters tend to prefer the other parties. By contrast, the Conservatives are the favoured party for the over-65 crowd. Tending to their interests, and encouraging them to vote, is smart politics for them.
Getting more of the younger cohort to vote is therefore more in the partisan interest of the other parties, whose leaders at the University of Ottawa event could not button up their partisanship, despite having been asked to park it for the day. For them, beating up on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government was like bashing a pinata. Except that this kind of mindless partisanship is precisely what the leaders were also insisting turns off voters.
The Conservatives' opponents have all studied, and tried to learn from, how U.S. President Barack Obama's organization galvanized so many youthful Americans in 2008. Of course, the Democrats successfully used all the tools of social media to reach the young, which is what parties are trying here.
There was something else about Mr. Obama's campaign: hope for a better tomorrow and a better country. His campaign – "Yes We Can" – not only offered the dream that a black man could become president of a country with a terrible history of racial discrimination, but that the country could be a fairer, more constructive place than it was during the terrible years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
In other words, Mr. Obama's campaign was about the mistakes of yesterday, but also about a better tomorrow. Maybe it was just that, a dream, but politics at its best is partly about believing there can be projects bigger than any of us that we will pass along to our children, and that today's young people might inherit.
As such, talking about the "anxieties of the middle class," launching an "affordability campaign" directed at the middle class or offering a series of tax credits to "hard-working taxpayers," as various of the parties do, could not be further from the preoccupations, hopes and dreams of young Canadians.