Wanna know my deepest, darkest political secret?
I once voted Conservative.
But cut me some slack. It was 1984, I was not quite 19, and it was my first election. I admired our then-Member of Parliament, John Crosbie (this was several years before the “Pass me the tequila, Sheila,” incident) and I think (correct me if I’m wrong, Dad) that my father, with whom I went to vote that first time, also voted Conservative. Oh, and back then they were the Progressive Conservatives, and still paid at least lip-service to the P that later got expunged from the party initials. My virgin vote contributed to the biggest Conservative landslide in Canadian history, so yes, you can blame me for Brian Mulroney.
But we all live and learn. By the 1988 election I was living in Oshawa, home of the great NDP leader Ed Broadbent, and I had a much clearer idea of my own political views, which were definitely social-democrat. I voted NDP from then until 2008 and, except for that time I lived in Oshawa, never did have the pleasure of seeing the candidate I voted for actually win. In 2008 I backed a winner by abandoning the party, voting Liberal in my home riding (St. John’s South-Mount Pearl) in hopes of thwarting the Harper Conservatives. I considered doing the same thing again this year, but when it became clear there was going to be a big upsurge of support for the NDP, I voted for the party and helped elect the first NDP candidate ever in this district.
For those of us hoping for a left-of-centre surge in Canadian politics, last night’s results left us feeling … ambiguous, at best. For the first time in Canadian history, the NDP has moved out of third-party status to become the official opposition … but in a government ruled by a comfortable Conservative minority. Stephen Harper has never let anyone believe he is a Progressive Conservative; if you heard Preston Manning, leader of the old hard-right-wing Reform Party crowing in delight on the news this morning, you know exactly what we’ve elected — not only a fiscally conservative government, but the most socially conservative government Canada has ever seen, with a solid majority that guarantees them four years to mess around with our health care system, our social programs, our arts funding, our human rights. Last night the centre vote melted away and people were driven either left or right, like the sheep and the goats, leaving the good old Liberal middle ground a barren wasteland. Canadian politics has become much more polarized overnight — and, I would argue, much more interesting.
Though I hope the NDP can use the next four years to provide a strong Opposition voice and position themselves as a viable choice for those who will inevitably be left with a bad taste in their mouths after four more years of Harper-style conservatism, I’m not looking forward to what those years will bring. But having urged people to get out and vote, vote, vote no matter what your political views, the thing I’m most disappointed by is that voter turnout doesn’t seem to have improved much over the dismal 58% of eligible votes we saw voting in 2008. And what disappoints me even more is the number of people who share my left-wing views who are now posting on Facebook that they want to leave the country or slit their wrists … or that Canadians are stupid or that “Democracy doesn’t work.”
No, that’s the problem. Democracy does work.
You may not like it, I may not like it, but it works. (Whether our parliamentary first-past-the-post system is the best way to make it work, or whether some kind of proportional representation would work better, is an interesting question, but the Tories won on both seats and popular vote last night). How democracy works is this: a majority of the people who care enough to show up and vote get to choose who will govern. And the minority of those of us who cared enough to vote and lost, have to SUCK IT UP.
Sucking it up means we support our leaders when possible and criticize them when necessary; we ask the hard questions and hold them accountable, and if we still hate what they stand for, we work to bring them down at the next election. Because this is democracy — we win some, we lose some, and we get to do it every four years. And I am absolutely passionate about the fact that that is a good thing; it’s a great thing.
I don’t feel Stephen Harper’s government represents me. It doesn’t represent me as a Newfoundlander, as a feminist, as an artist, as a social democrat, as an advocate for gay rights, as a person who works with low-income and disadvantaged people in our society. Because these are the things I am and the things I stand for, I believe the Harper conservative majority government will hurt me and the people I care about in every way possible. But I also believe that the people who voted him into office have a right to a voice, and that is, and always will be, A Good Thing.
Don’t give up on democracy folks. We can tinker with it, we can try to make it work better, but we can never win by dropping out. The right to vote is the most important right we have, and it always will be. Even Stephen Harper’s not going to try to take that away from us. And anything Harper’s not going to take from you is a thing to cherish.