I had the honour of participating in the annual HOBY youth leadership conference on Saturday, May 4th. I was on a panel with Ed Holder and some others discussing how youth can get involved in politics. Below are the remarks I have to the students.
Political parties used to serve an important purpose in Canadian society. They had robust memberships and were effective vehicles for connecting the experiences of citizens on the ground to decisions made in legislatures.
This is not the case today. Political parties are shells of their former selves, controlled more by the leaders’ office than the membership.
As such, Canadian democracy has lost an important way of engaging citizens in policy making – but a renaissance for all political parties is possible; but it will only happen if more people like you get engaged with a political party.
I know this is a hard sell. The image of politics – nasty, boring, old, disconnected from your concerns – pales in comparison to the many other ways for you to get involved in your community. You can probably find a cause that fits your exact interests; you can roll up your sleeves for that cause and can usually see a quick and tangible result from your efforts. You’ll also probably have fun doing it.
In comparison to many NGOs and Non-Profits, getting involved with a political party, and staying involved with the party, isn’t as easy.
The most difficult challenge is that you have to actually choose a party. It is difficult to choose because no party will perfectly match your values, priorities or belief structure – you have to learn to live with things you disagree with in order to advance the things you do care about.
So why take the leap and make this difficult choice?
Political parties can breathe more life into our democracy – but they’ll stay exactly the same if good people like you don’t get involved.
How can parties reform? I could list many ways, but I’ll focus only on a few in the time I have.
Giving the party rank and file an actual say in the party’s political platform would be a very good start. Presently, party members can debate and pass policy at policy conventions, resulting in a very thick policy book that sits on a shelf. It is how that policy book is prioritized into a party platform during election, and how the policy book informs a government’s agenda, that really matters. Party members through their individual MPs and MPPs, not the leaders’ office, should have more say in setting the party’s election and governing agenda.
I think the process for nominating candidates should also change.
All parties should have open nominations, meaning that any party member can throw their hat in the ring. No automatic nominations for past-candidates or sitting members. No veto from the leaders’ office of candidates they deem to be unsuitable; just open, direct democracy at the riding level.
This would make candidates feel more responsible to their local riding association than to the leaders’ office, but would also put a greater responsibility on the riding to provide ongoing feedback to a sitting member. To go along with open nominations, it is also critical to expand the freedom for local MPs and MPPs to vote their constituents’ will rather than through edict from the leaders’ office.
These reforms can happen, but they require enough party members to stand up and demand them.
So I challenge all of you to explore engagement with a political party.
It won’t be the sexiest, easiest, or most fun way for you to make a difference – but rarely in life will the most important forms of leadership be the easiest. They usually involve sacrifice, hard work, and frustration. But the payoff for perseverance can be meaningful change.
Read about each party and what they stand for. Learn about the local candidates in your riding and where they come from. Attend a meeting or go to an event. Then choose.
We need you, and I can guarantee that all the political parties will welcome your involvement with open arms.