MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard spoke about Citizens’ Responsibilities in the Legislature

Today, MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard spoke about Citizens’ Responsibilities in the Legislature. You can watch the video here, or read the transcript below.

I would like to explore voting — voting which is both a citizen’s right and responsibility. I recently spoke to some grade eight and nine students at Lake Trail School in Courtenay. I took the opportunity to encourage them to exercise their right to vote as soon as they are able, because it’s been shown that if young adults do not vote when they are first eligible, they’re likely to never vote in their entire lives.

Why does it matter? Our democracy is weakened when citizens are not participating, when they are not exercising their freedom to choose. That gap exposes a danger of losing the many freedoms that democracy can bring. This is where the tilt begins, where right turns into responsibility. If we want our rights and freedoms, we need to exercise them. Take them out into the light and walk into those polling booths to make our mark.

So who votes, and who doesn’t? New Canadians, especially those who have come from countries where democracy is only a dream, exercise their franchise often with profound appreciation. Voting is an event to be celebrated.

I remember one woman who was delighted to become a new Canadian very shortly before her first vote. That first vote was cast for me, in the hope that our party brought. As she proudly said: “I was one of the nine.” Every vote counts.

Sadly for others, voting lacks that joy and excitement. Who doesn’t vote? We know that young voters are staying away from the polls in droves, but it’s not just those young voters. The numbers of voters across the board has been dwindling over the past few decades. A lot comes into play. But really, it boils down to four basic reasons. Those reasons include education, role models, registration and a sense of empowerment.

We often hear: “I didn’t learn about civics when I was in school.” Simply put, education is an investment in democracy. Greater attention is needed so that as those young students grow up to be of voting age, they don’t feel they aren’t informed enough to participate.

I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the Speaker’s sponsorship of the wonderful program here at the Legislature, the B.C. Teachers Institute on Parliamentary Democracy. Teachers who are keen to better know our parliamentary democracy become better prepared to inspire their students, our future voters, to have a stronger understanding and confidence to participate in our democracy.

There are other resources, too, that civil societies have been creating, as the crisis of lack of participation in elections grows. Student Vote is one such program, and there are others. But on its own, education is not enough. Role models nurture voting as a learned behaviour. As one generation after another falls away from voting, there are less and less role models — role models who make the exercise of choosing their governments a commonplace task.

Teachers can be inspirational, but added to that is another layer: when people that students know and love involve them in the practice of voting, the way is paved. When moms and dads vote and involve their children in discussion about choices and about the value of voting, and by bringing them along to the polling station, then there’s a greater likelihood that they will take up voting when they are able.

But while education and role models open the door of possibility, there are stumbling blocks. We talk about voter registration and the need to improve that and make it easier for people to make it part of their everyday routine — not like going to the dentist but more like going to a ball game.

Finally, we come to today’s important debates and today’s choices. When people don’t feel that there is value in voting, then there is little motivation to make the effort to exercise their freedom to choose. Refining our voting system so that every citizen feels the power of their vote will reinforce a citizen’s right and responsibility to choose — and strengthen our democracy.

Of course, that’s why I support proportional representation — to get closer to 100 percent of the vote for 100 percent of the power.