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Opinion: We need to strengthen democracy across all levels of government

More than a third of B.C. residents feel something is missing when it comes to the state of democracy in Canada.
Satisfaction with democracy varies across age groups in British Columbia

When a diverse and cross-partisan group of former British Columbia MLAs gathered at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in April for a one-day workshop on the topic of strengthening democracy, their first question was crucial: How safe is democracy in Canada today? 

To answer this question, they turned to Research Co. to conduct a poll to gauge the opinions of British Columbians. 

The results of the survey, conducted earlier this month, are reassuring and concerning at the same time. More than three in five British Columbians (63 per cent) view the state of democracy in Canada as "very good” or “good.” While we could see this as a positive result, more than a third of the province’s residents feel something is missing.

Satisfaction with democracy varies across age groups, with British Columbians aged 35 to 54 expressing more skepticism about the current state of affairs (56 per cent believe it to be "very good" or "good"). In contrast, 66 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 and 69 per cent of those aged 55 and over express higher levels of satisfaction. 

Notably, over half of British Columbians (53 per cent) consider their provincial and municipal governments to be "very responsive" or "moderately responsive" to their needs and the needs of other residents. The federal government received lower ratings, with only 40 per cent of British Columbians holding similar views. The disconnect between citizens and the government is clearly greatest at the federal level.

At this point, practically a year removed from the last municipal elections and with about a year to go before British Columbians participate in a provincial ballot, British Columbians have several worries about the state of democracy. 

"Fake news" is seen as a significant threat to Canada’s democratic institutions by 76 per cent of British Columbians, followed closely by polarization at 75 per cent. Put differently, three in four residents are concerned about voters and parties making decisions that are based either on misinformation or knee-jerk opposition.

Three other issues are regarded as threats to the state of democracy in Canada by two-thirds of British Columbians: Racism and discrimination (70 per cent), low citizen engagement on important issues (68 per cent) and low voter turnout (67 per cent). 

The data tells us that British Columbians aged 18 to 34 are not as concerned about low engagement on important issues and low turnout in elections (62 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively) as their older counterparts. We have seen dwindling levels of voter participation in some municipalities, but the generation that is more likely to voice concerns about matters such as the environment or housing is not currently looking at the ballot box as the primary solution. 

The “Strengthen Democracy” initiative is focusing some of its efforts on the level of government closest to the citizen: Municipal politics. Our survey found that only 31 per cent of British Columbians engaged directly with their municipality in the past year. While a majority of those who did were satisfied with the handling of their issues (54 per cent), more than two in five remain dismayed or undecided.

If disinformation has been identified as a threat to democracy, a desired course of action is to ensure that the public knows what is happening. Almost three in five British Columbians (59 per cent) agree with the idea of compelling media outlets to provide specific coverage devoted solely to municipal issues. Additionally, 56 per cent support the concept of elected councillors representing specific wards rather than voting for several at-large councillors.

Fewer respondents agree with abolishing political parties or “slates” and having all candidates for mayor, council or school board run independently (50 per cent) or allowing permanent residents who have lived in a municipality for at least six months to vote in municipal elections (47 per cent). 

While some of these ideas may be contentious, we need healthy and open debate to ensure the vitality of our democracy. Former premier Mike Harcourt and former labour minister Graham Bruce, speaking on behalf of “Strengthening Democracy,” will address mayors and councillors at the Union of BC Municipalities this week. They will emphasize the importance of civic education, leveraging social media, promoting dialogue and collaboration, and building trust by working closely with local leaders. They hope to spark a broader conversation about how we can all contribute to strengthening democracy in British Columbia and Canada. It is a conversation in which all are welcome. 

Max Cameron is a professor of political science and public policy at UBC. Mario Canseco is president of Research Co. 

Results are based on an online study conducted from Sept. 4-6 among 813 adults in B.C. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in B.C. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.