Last week, Montreal was abuzz with the news that Mélanie Joly would be running for the Liberal nomination in Ahuntsic-Cartierville. Joly is known for two things: placing a strong second in the 2013 Montreal mayoral race and being a Canadian politician under the age of 50.
We saw this happen when 2011’s ‘Orange Wave’ brought a large number of under-40 New Democrats to the Commons: Every time a young person wins an election in this country, we wonder if it’s a sign that our dismal performance on youth voter turnout might be turning around. It’s not that simple.
Twenty-seven per cent of Canadians fall into the age group dubbed ‘millennials’. Only 10 per cent of MPs are between the ages of 19 and 40 years old. The average age of Members of Parliament is 53.
What matters to young people, it turns out, is not a candidate’s age. What matters is whether a candidate actively reaches out to young people during a campaign.
The Conservatives and the NDP lead the Commons in terms of age diversity, with 10 and 21 MPs under 40 in their respective caucuses. The Conservatives arguably have the lock on millennials in positions of authority; both Pierre Pollievre and James Moore are running significant portfolios while still in their 30s.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is a youthful-looking 43 and is often dismissed by his critics as too young for the job. Ironically, his is the only major caucus in the Commons with no millennial members. Newly-minted Liberal Eve Adams, at age 40, is now the youngest member of the Liberal caucus.
But does the age of a candidate have any impact on youth engagement in democracy? A recent study out of the U.S. suggests it doesn’t. The Pew Research Centre, studying the experiences of presidential hopefuls, reported that there is no significant link between a voter’s age and his or her view of a candidate’s age. The same pattern has been observed between women voters and women candidates; women don’t vote for a candidate simply because of her gender.
What matters to young people, it turns out, is not a candidate’s age. What matters is whether a candidate actively reaches out to young people during a campaign. And the most powerful way for a politician to connect with young voters is to talk to them face to face anda sk them to vote. Doing so can increase the likelihood of a young person voting by 10 per cent. Age isn’t relevant. Engagement is.
But it’s a vicious circle: Since youth don’t vote in significant numbers, candidates don’t make the effort to reach out to them. Politicians find it easier — and cheaper — to focus on older voters who are more predictable and who are sure to get out to the polls. As a result, youth voter turnout continues to decline.
The young MPs in the Orange Wave weren’t elected by young people — they were elected by a volatile Quebec electorate tired of the status quo. Putting forth a younger candidate won’t draw the youth vote on its own. That will only happen when all candidates, regardless of age, start actively reaching out to young people and encouraging them to vote. The millennial generation must come to be seen as relevant and valuable voting bloc.
Diversity of all kinds in politics is important, something we should strive for. It can have a powerful impact on the way Parliament does business. But how we get there is just as important. We need to worry more about getting young Canadians to the polls — and less about getting ‘fresh faces’ into politics.
Ilona Dougherty is co-founder of Apathy is Boring, a national non-partisan charitable organization that uses art and technology to educate youth about democracy and encourages them to vote. She is a regular commentator in national media, a published author, and speaks to audiences internationally about redefining intergenerational relationships and encouraging active citizenship.
Re-published in partnership with iPolitics.ca