Democratic Engagement means being involved in advancing democracy through political institutions, organizations, and activities.
A society that enjoys a high degree of democratic engagement is one where citizens participate in political activities, express political views, and foster political knowledge; where governments build relationships, trust, shared responsibility, and participation opportunities with citizens; and where citizens, governments, and civil society uphold democratic values at local, provincial, and national levels. A healthy democracy needs citizens who feel their votes count, are informed, participate, debate, and advocate. It needs governments at all levels to be transparent, inclusive, consultative, and trustworthy. In essence, political leadership, citizen participation, and communication demonstrate the level of democratic engagement.
Participation is up, but confidence is down: the democratic engagement paradox
Trends in Democratic Engagement in Canada are somewhat more volatile than other domains of wellbeing, reflecting the ebb and flow of political cycles. Overall, after a steep decline following the recession, Canadians’ engagement with their democracy has risen steadily since 2011, up by over 13%. While the overall trend is positive, the increase masks the serious concerns Canadians have regarding federal Parliament and how our democracy works. The persistent challenge of electing more women to Parliament also continues.
We are participating more in our democracy…
Voter turnout is increasing. Turnout at federal elections hit its lowest point since 1994 when just 58.8% Canadians voted in 2008. However, voter turnout rose to 61.1% in 2011 and then to 68.0% in 2015. The 6.9% increase in voter turnout in 2015 was due to much greater numbers of people under 45 years of age voting than in previous elections.
Voter age gap is decreasing. With the higher turnout of younger voters in recent elections, we are moving closer to better representing Canadians of all ages in our federal Parliament. The percentage gap between younger and older voters was 38.7% in the 2004 election and 36.3% in 2011, but dropped to just 21.7% in 2015.
But slightly fewer eligible voters are registered. The number of eligible Canadians registered to vote has always been high, but has edged downwards in recent years. In 1994, 91.5% of eligible voters were registered and in 2014, the percentage had dropped to 88.5%.
…But only 2% of Canadians volunteer for a political party or advocacy group
The percentage of Canadians volunteering for a political party or advocacy group is up, but dismal. Since 2011, the number of Canadians volunteering for a political party or advocacy group is up very slightly, but overall, the numbers remain very low. Only about 2% of Canadians volunteered over the years between 1994 and 2014.
MPs’ communications increased — especially around election time
Overall, MPs are spending more to communicate with constituents. Members of Parliament (MPs) are expected to reach out to Canadians to invite their participation, report on their activities as representatives, and work to understand their constituents’ concerns and ideas.6 Even though MPs’ budgets for print communications mailed to Canadian householders increased overall by 23.4% between 2001 and 2014, they were much more frequent before and during election years and more sporadic in intervening years.
Confidence in democracy and parliament has eroded…
We have lost ground in our satisfaction with how democracy is working. In 1994, six in 10 Canadians (59.7%) said they were satisfied with the way democracy is working in Canada and by 2008, that percentage had risen by over 10%. By 2014, the numbers had slipped back to barely two-thirds of Canadians who felt satisfied with how democracy works in Canada.
Barely 1 in 3 people had confidence in Parliament in 2014 — a new low. In 2003, almost half of Canadians (49.2%) reported they had a great deal of confidence in our federal Parliament. By 2014, that figure had dropped to just over one-third (35.5%) with most of that decline occurring after 2008. While these percentages do not include the 2015 election, they suggest a strong disconnect between the activities of Canada’s Parliament and how confident Canadians feel about the government’s policies and priorities. As our confidence wanes, it is eroding our belief in the way democracy is working in Canada.
…And women are still under-represented in parliament
The percentage of women in federal Parliament is up, but nowhere near parity. In 1994, 20.3% of MPs were women. By 2011, that figure had risen to 24.8% — a paltry increase of 4.5% in 16 years. The 2015 federal election saw 88 women elected, representing 26.0% of the seats in the House of Commons.7 While these small increases are encouraging, female representation in government still falls well short of the over 50% of the population that women comprise. At this rate, we will not reach gender parity for another 80 years.
There are signs that Canadians might be re-engaging with the democratic process. Voter turnout is increasing, the gap between younger and older voters is narrowing, slightly more people are volunteering for political and advocacy groups, and more women are MPs.
However, some caution must be exercised before seeing these trends as sustainable. Voter turnout is increasing largely because younger people are showing up, not necessarily because of widespread re-engagement by all Canadians. We must focus on retaining these young people and on reaching out to others who feel disenfranchised. While volunteering for democratic groups has edged upwards, it remains a tiny proportion of Canadians. At the same time, engaging people to advocate for change on the environment, health issues, or other public policy issues locally or on the global scale could yield important benefits, not just for Democratic Engagement, but also for other domains of wellbeing.
Canadians cannot take great pride in ranking 64th in the world in the percentage of women serving as representatives in lower or single Houses of Parliament8. Even though more women sit in our federal Parliament, progress towards parity is slow and women are still seriously under-represented. The same can be said for other groups in Canada such as Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, and Canadians born outside the country, all of whom also are under-represented.
Given Canadians’ declining confidence in the federal government and satisfaction with the way democracy is working, more effort must be made to engage citizens. Increased use of social media by MPs has provided Canadians — especially younger Canadians — with a platform to engage with their representatives and might in part be behind the modest increases in participation. In addition, some governments are embracing more open data policies and practices in order to empower citizens and increase transparency. According to the OECD, Canada is among the world leaders in this movement.9
Democratic Engagement indicators tracked 1994 to 2014
- Percentage of voter turnout at federal elections
- Ratio of registered to eligible voters
- Gap in percentage turnout between older and younger voters
- Percentage of women in federal Parliament
- Percentage of Members of Parliament’s office budget devoted to sending communications to constituents
- Percentage of population that volunteers for a law, advocacy, or political group
- Percentage of population that is very or fairly satisfied with way democracy works in Canada
- Percentage of population with a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in federal Parliament