THERE IS NO DEBATE: WE NEED COMPULSORY VOTING

There has been much consternation about the small number of leaders’ debates in the run-up to next week’s federal election.  There were only two that included all six of the Party leaders, one in French and one in English.  While there had been only two that included all party leaders in 2015, there had been a total of five that included the leaders of the three major parties.  Many were and are incensed at the paucity of opportunities to see the leaders debating head-to-head this time around.

They needn’t be.  I watched both debates.  They were awful.  They were disappointing.    They were uninspired.  They were uninformative.  They were disheartening.  And it wasn’t just the format.  The largely inaudible cacophony of the English debate was avoided in most part in the French language debate by both the firm hand of a single moderator and the segregation of the leaders into groups of three in addressing questions.  However, even with more order, and even where the questions posed to the leaders managed to rise above the usual opportunities for insipid virtue signalling, the substance of the answers offered by the leaders lacked nuance or insight that would allow a truly undecided voter to draw any basis for differentiation.

The most commonly asserted reason for the seeming poor quality of the choices that we are offered is the nasty nature of politics today.  It seemed that politicians used to migrate from successful careers in law, business or academia later in their career, bringing with them adult experience in an area of achievement other than politics.  Today, experience brings with it history, and history can include contradictions, lessons learned and unguarded moments that can be used, both fairly and unfairly, to distract from then current personal convictions and policy positions.  So instead we end up with career politicians, whose actions and personas have been constructed since adolescence, at least in theory, in anticipation of the unforgiving gaze of politics.  It is undeniable and patently evident that polls and focus groups have filled the void left by the lack of relevant experience in establishing policy priorities.

Add to this reality the advent of Big Data.  All political parties now have access to data that they believe allows them to stratify the electorate and identify with pinpoint accuracy those voters whose support they can be certain of and those who are truly available to be swayed by a political campaign.  And all, it seems, have concluded that the size of the former far outstrips the latter.  Accordingly, campaigns have come to be far more an exercise in rallying the decided voters to the polls than swaying the undecided or, heaven forbid, changing the minds of the least ardent supporters of an opposing party.  So, debates are exercises in polemic posturing, without respect for or admission of the complexities of any of the issues before the electorate.

While there is no quick fix that will bring leaders with broader experience back to politics, there is at least one measure than might go some way in curbing the inclination of party leaders to preach only to the converted.  And that measure is compulsory voting.

In proposing compulsory voting, I am not suggesting that we make abstaining from voting punishable by fines or imprisonment.  We extend a carrot, not a stick.  Citizens of voting age are made eligible for a meaningful but not extravagant refundable tax credit on their federal and provincial tax returns on the basis of each election held in that taxation year in which the voting data shows they voted.  They can exercise their vote as solemnly or frivolously as they like; they can spoil their ballot if they so choose.  But if they show up at the polling station and receive a ballot, they get the credit.

So how would compulsory voting improve the quality of election debates and the tone of political discourse generally?  By eliminating the incentive for parties to use the campaign as a tool to get out the vote, they will be more inclined to use it as an opportunity to bring undecideds and more weakly attached voters to their camps.  And to do so, their pitches would necessarily be more nuanced, more respectful of contrary viewpoints, and generally more thoughtful.

And maybe, just maybe, some young man or woman of substance and conviction will in the not so distant future watch an election debate and see a respectful and insightful exchange of ideas in which they would someday like to participate.

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