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Canadian Conservatives May Have to Start Caring What Young Voters Think

Historically, the Conservatives haven't needed young voters to win—but that could be changing.

by James Wilt
Aug 25 2015, 5:20pm

It's not fair to pick on redheads all the time, but come on: What child is this excited to meet Stephen Harper? Photo via Facebook

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Highly ranked comments on the Conservative Party's Facebook page seem to be defined by three characteristics: a) puzzling references to sharia law, Justin Trudeau's hair, and/or socialists; b) a disagreeable quantity of exclamation marks ("Oh Mr. [Stephen] Harper, we sooo need this. Ty!" and "Thankful for PM Harper!!" and "God keep our land!!!" and "Harper all the way !!!!"); and c) they're almost entirely supplied by seniors.

The latter fact may not be entirely surprising—especially in the meme-heavy wake of Earl Cowan, the befuddled geezer who crassly referred to Toronto reporters as "lying pieces of shit." Bruce Foster, political science professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University, notes the Canadian conservative movement has historically been sustained by this age group, with the average supporter for the Reform Party (the populist precursor to today's Conservative Party) being "like 150 fucking years old."

Sure, there are indeed plenty of fresh-faced Conservatives out there: the likes of J.J. McCullough and Trevor Norris spend decent chunks of their days reminding the Twittersphere of that fact, while young fans appear at Conservative rallies with the oddly optimistic and kind of creepy intent of befriending Harper's kids.

Yet new polling data suggests younger Canadians are far more prone to vote for a center-left party than for the Conservatives: Only 24 percent of 18-to-29-year-old decided voters will vote for the blue team, compared to 40 percent of the 65+ contingent. Perhaps the honorable response to such a situation would be for a party to take note of what young people are concerned about (job creation, education, and the environment, according to a recent Abacus poll) and make commitments to resolve such issues. What have the Conservatives done instead? Gone batshit about terrorism and deceptively balanced the budget—two hot-button issues that reinforce the generational divide on the wrinklier end of the spectrum.

Michael Harris, author of Party of One: Stephen Harper And Canada's Radical Makeover, notes: "In terms of Harper's appeal, man, if fear and greed can appeal to you, he's doing everything he can." That approach—attempting to convince Canadians we're on the brink of transforming into a failed state overrun by terrorists—was recently summed up by Sun Media commentator John Robson as representing "coarse, vindictive, proudly unprincipled cynicism." When partnered with smarmy pledges like the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), the Conservatives quickly prove they view college-age voters as inconveniences who don't really deserve attention (although Harper did post a picture of playing video games with his son on the campaign trail, but he wasn't touching any of the controller's buttons or triggers, so who really knows what was going on there).

That's because historically, the Conservatives haven't needed young voters to win. Our first-past-the-post electoral system tends to inspire divide-and-conquer politicking, encouraging parties to hone attention on specific demographics they know they can secure with hyperbolic messaging and pledges. Other instances: Harper repeatedly insulting the newly elected Alberta NDP government, releasing face-palm-worthy attack ads, and belittling Justin Trudeau by only addressing the Liberal leader by first name. By disenfranchising already cynical young voters with robocalls, a hellishly long and pointless campaign, or with good old-fashioned voter suppression tactics, the Conservatives can pretend that segment of the population just doesn't exist. Sure, it's not honorable, but it wins elections. At least it has in the past.

Foster notes the Conservatives have a solid base of 30 percent but will need "another bunch of voters" to get them up to the 40 percent range required for a majority. And that's where things might get interesting. A recent poll from Abacus suggests 70 percent of Canadians haven't fully decided on who they're going to vote for, something David Coletto—CEO of the polling firm—says corresponds with a discernible trend away from "a stable partisan identification or attachment." Recent EKOS Politics data also suggests the Conservatives have little "second choice" support, meaning the party has to retain the backing it has. But "negative feelings" about Harper are rising and the ongoing trial of disgraced Senator Mike Duffy continues to chip away at Conservative support.

The timing couldn't be better for organizations like Shit Harper Did (SHD)—a Vancouver-based project that's carefully chronicled some of Harper's worst offenses via satirical videos and online posts—to ramp up its droll efforts to get young people voting.

Since 2011, members from the organization, including executive director Sean Devlin, have crashed speeches by Harper, his wife Laureen, and former industry minister James Moore. Many more instances of direct action will occur in the coming weeks and months, according to Devlin, with some 1,500 young Canadians committed to risking arrest for the sake of direct action. In addition, the organization's teamed up with the Yes Men and Mark Achbar (creator of The Corporation and Manufacturing Consent) to create a feature-length documentary about Harper's infatuation with terrorism, which will be released in late September. Shit's about to get pretty real.

Coletto says the Alberta election has changed the game; what he calls an "incredible halo effect" from that shocker is still lingering, with more people than ever before believing the NDP can win. This fact matters, given that young voters tend to lean left and that knowing one's politician of choice has a shot of actually winning can inspire higher turnouts.

Of course, efforts like Shit Harper Did could flop and half of 18-to-29-year-olds could stay home on Election Day while over three-quarters of 65-to-74-year-olds vote (mostly for Harper), just like in 2011.

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