Friday, 8 June 2018

Low Information Voter

Yesterday I voted in my first ever Canadian election. I was under voting age when I left, and by the time I was an adult I'd been away far too long for an absentee ballot, but now I'm back.


THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Rachel Verbin


(On a personal note: I'm back to blogging, too, after a longer-than-planned absence. It turns out moving to another continent with a three-year-old child and a cat is very tiring, but I'm enjoying my new home.)

One of many new experiences in Canada is being what one might call a low information voter.

I've always paid close attention to UK politics. It probably reached a high point in the 1997 election. My friends and I were 18 or 19 years old, ready to vote for the first time, and we were all students with plenty of free time. We had cheap newspapers in the student union, the humble beginnings of the Internet, and time to argue and discuss, both in person and online.

The philosophers of ancient Athens might have been proud; or more likely, they would have considered us a pack of fools, well supplied with information but lacking in wisdom.

Be that as it may, I had a very good idea of the key personalities and issues, along with others which in all honesty were not so key. I was well informed of the leaders, lieutenants, and spear-carriers; minor scandals and fine points of policy.

I kept up with this over the years. Having a good base of knowledge made it easier to maintain. The scene doesn't change that quickly, and some figures from the 1990s are still active -- Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Clarke, Alex Salmond. My free time was less than it once was, but the internet and smartphones made it easier to consume news throughout the day, in bite-sized snippets. I enjoyed a nice smug feeling that I was doing my civic duty by staying informed.

In Canada, my British knowledge is largely irrelevant. Here, I know who the Prime Minister is, the major parties and approximately what they stand for. That's about it. Without going online to look it up, I couldn't name five Canadian Cabinet ministers for love nor money.

Yeah, I could go online and learn, but I'm not nineteen years old any more. I've got work to do, bills to pay, household chores to keep up with, a young son to raise and a cat who demands attention. Educating myself about politics falls a long way down the priority list.

So now I sympathise, a bit more than I used to, with those people who don't know much about politics or government. At least I know about the mechanics of parliamentary democracy, which are pretty similar between the UK and Canada.

All this was brought into focus by yesterday's election in the province of Ontario. The provincial government has a lot of control over things like health, education and transport which matter to my everyday life. I'm a busy person, but I wanted to be a responsible voter, so I took steps to find out a minimum amount to make an informed choice.

The polls were pretty clear: The governing centrist Liberals were on their way out, and the next government would be formed by either the Conservatives or (less likely) the NDP.

NDP stands for the New Democratic Party, who offer themselves as a left-wing alternative to the centre-left Liberals. Some jokester has called them the Not Doug Party, in reference to Doug Ford, the decidedly Trumpish leader of the Conservatives.

So here's my shallow understanding of the parties:
  • Liberals: Centre-left. Tired and shaken by scandal after 15 years in power.
  • Conservatives: Right-wing. Doug Ford poses as Trump-lite, a businessman railing against "elites", taxes, science, and so on.
  • New Democrats: Left-wing. Relatively clean, but a bit flaky and hippie-ish.
  • Greens: Not much different from the UK Greens. Big on environmental policy; unlikely to win more than one or two seats across the province.
I know who the party leaders are, because they're hard to avoid on television. I also took the trouble to read a summary of their platforms, but that's about it.

It doesn't even come close to my depth of knowledge of UK politics, but for the purposes of casting an informed vote I'm not sure it matters much. If I'm being honest, all that knowledge grew out of a habit of following politics as a horse race and soap opera, in addition to high-minded civic duty.

I voted on my way home, which was awfully convenient with a polling station in the lobby of my apartment building. Let's just say it wasn't for Doug's party.

Despite my wishes, it looks like the Conservatives will form the next Ontario government. The best I can say for that is, I hope it won't be too destructive. Somewhere along the line, "Conservative" ceased to mean actually conserving things, and came to mean radical distrust of expertise, education and public services.

So it goes; at least Ford will not have the opportunity to do anything as drastic as Brexit, and in four years we get another election and an opportunity to throw the government out.

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