I wasn't always interested in politics. I voted for the first time when I was 18 because it was on the list of things you do when you turn 18: buy a drink at the bar, buy a pack of smokes (whether or not it's your habit), purchase a lottery ticket (whether or not you feel "lucky") and vote — even if you have no idea what’s going on. I did all of these things, including marking an ‘X’ next to a name that I had never heard before, nor cared to learn.
I'm not sure what started the political fire in my belly, but I do know it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s. Since then, I’ve continually wanted to dive deeper and find out what it is that makes people decide on who to put their chicken-scratched 'X' beside on a ballot, especially in our digital world, where the electorate is bombarded with social media posts, videos, advertisements, articles and memes. But what is the best way for the electorate to sift through the nonsense to make a decision that they can be confident about?
We come out of high school understandably exhausted from the previous 12 years of a regimented schedule, assignments we don’t care about and topics we didn’t choose to learn. So, it’s equally understandable that voting, or politics in general, would be the last thing on our minds. But, as we enter the workforce, leaving the ease of adolescence, and into greater society, elections, policy and voting should become more important as the decisions we make as an individual end up affecting our community as a whole.
Alberta’s current Grade K to 12 social studies curriculum touches on politics in the form of power and economics, history, structure and principles of the bedrock of our democratic system, liberalism.
And while these topics are important to learn, and give a basic understanding of our political system as a whole to the next generation of voters, some of us are barely left knowing how the system works, let alone how to sift through the noise of political sarcasm, attack advertisements, policy releases and scandals, to make an informed decision of how to cast our votes.
Voting, or more importantly, not voting, can result in massive consequences as elected officials have the power to decide the direction of the municipality, province or country for the next four years. In the 2015 election, which saw a surprise victory by the New Democratic Party, voter turnout was the highest it had been since 1993 at just over 57 per cent, a rise of almost four per cent from the election in 2012. If voter turnout continues to rise, or at the very least stay steady, then knowledge of how to effectively seek out data is important.
This didn’t really become important to me until I started university. There are a few ways that one can survive the atrocious expenses of learning: your parents pay for it, you work a part-time job that pays for it, or you borrow money. After a few years of working, and bad decisions, I ended up having to take on the latter — the dreaded student loans.
The bonus to student loans, however, is your file is audited to see if you qualify for any kind of government grants. The downside is, the amount of those grants change depending on who is running the government at the time.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I started post-secondary in 2011, the federal government-of-the-day was the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives. My grant intake for that time was $400 per semester. Fast-forward about seven years and two elections, and the current government, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, have upped that per-semester grant to $1,500. And, because I’m a “mature student” and have been out of high school for at least 10 years, I get an extra few bucks as well. Bonus.
This example isn’t to show that one party is better than the other. Or that the Liberal party will always provide funding like this, or that the Conservatives never will. Many “un-party-like” policies have been put through is the past, such as the legalization of gay marriage through the Conservatives in 2005, and Harper’s diligence in refusing to let his party even touch the topic of banning abortions as he understood it would be political suicide.
The point is who you vote for, and the policies of their party, as they will impact your life, one way or another. Through this period, advertisements, door-knocking and debates are held to show the electorate what each party stands for. The sheer number of candidates, coming from a variety of different parties, can be confusing and downright exhausting, but every media article, broadcast, advertisement, social media post and meme is important — even the ones that seem shady or “fake” — as they all provide a little more information about the parties and their candidates. The really hard part is thinking critically, and sometimes with a lot of skepticism, to make that final decision.
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, said no matter the age or the experience of the voter, there is no right or wrong way to absorb and assess the information that is showcased to the electorate. Whether through print, broadcast, advertisements or the party’s own websites, it is all relevant and useful to make a decision.
Some of the information does require basic critical thinking skills because party websites can be tough to sift through, he added. One needs to be able to digest what’s being given them and decide for themselves how accurate it is.
“Sometimes you need a bit of a filter to be able to go, ‘Well, are those promises actually correct? Can this really happen?’” he said. “Some of it is just critical thinking skills. ‘Does this in my gut make sense?’”
Attack advertisements are also a legitimate part of the process, he adds. Both Jason Kenney, leader of the United Conservative Party, and Rachel Notley, leader of the New Democrats, and current Alberta premier, referenced their own attack ads during a leadership debate on April 4.
Early in the campaign, for example, the UCP released an attack ad against the NDP, and their leader Rachel Notley. The video shows a clip of Notley referring to Alberta as Canada’s “embarrassing cousin.”
“I think that those are legitimate because it’s not always what a candidate believes, [but] what about the other candidate?” said Bratt.
At the end of the day, politics is a convoluted topic, and “everything is politics.” Much in our day-to-day lives can all be traced back to politics — how much taxes you pay when you fill your tank with gas, wait times at the local hospital, and how many students you share a classroom with, as well as whether your home is heated with natural gas or hydro-electricity.
I wasn’t always interested in politics. Most of us aren’t. But when it becomes clear just how much these “overlords” can change, with or without public consultation, it’s easier to pay a little more attention to think, “What do I want? And who will reflect those wants in a government that I can support?”
- By Stephanie Hagenaars