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Personal Choice, Public Consequence: Accounting for Ballot Box Decisions

May 11, 2011

4-minute read

I grew up in a political household.

Not that I realized it at the time. I only knew that our dinner table conversations were not about math tests and birthday parties. Well, at least not for more than five minutes. After that, we could see my dad’s irritation grow as precious moments that could have been spent discussing current events were lost to grade school and high school minutae.

Once he started deliberately clearing his throat we knew we had let things go for too long.

I won’t pretend it didn’t drive me nuts; I was pretty sure my friends didn’t have their dinnertime routinely hijacked by the political process.

But now that I’m a parent, once again (as I did with the CBC and porridge) I find myself coming full circle.

My daughter turns six this year, and has already been through three federal elections, all of which were the topic of much household discussion. She accompanied us to the polling stations (this year for the first time with her baby brother), and helped to make sure our lawn sign was securely fixed to the ground. And she asked questions--which we did our best to answer age-appropriately.

At first it was about “teams” and their colours, then it was about who “won” and if she got the most votes would she be “the best”. But this year when she asked “who is Stephen Harper and what has he done?” we decided we could get more nuanced.

So we talked about choices. And what makes a good leader. And how important it is to listen, and to think about how someone’s decisions affect not just you, but other people. And how a good leader must be prepared to talk to all sorts of people to try and understand what different people in different neighbourhoods need. We asked her to think about the important things in her life—her family and friends, her school, her daycare, her teachers, the parks we play in, the libraries and bike lanes we use, the food we eat, the house we live in, her grandparents, what happened when I broke my leg and how I got better, or when she or her brother had to go to the hospital.

We told her that people can have similar priorities but make very different choices about how to get there—choices that might not be good for everyone, choices that might be bad for people who need a lot of help. And then we explained how we had decided to vote, and why we thought we had made a good choice—not just for us and people we know, but for people we don’t know.

But we also told her that not everyone would agree with our choice, and that we might not agree with their choice either. And that it’s good to talk about why you might not agree. But you must always respect people’s right to make their choice, even if you don’t like it.

Then things got sticky.

So, I can decide when I grow up who I want to vote for?


I can vote for anyone I want?

Yes—as long as you live in their riding. (Insert brief conversation about how ridings work.)

I could even vote for Stephen Harper and you wouldn’t be mad at me?

(Deep breath.)

Honey, you can vote for whoever you want and we wouldn’t be mad at you.

(And then I continued….)

But I would be disappointed if you voted for someone and didn’t think about what your decision meant for other people, not just for you.

That, she understood—after all, she goes to a cooperative daycare, where empathy is as present as epi-pens and permission forms, and where  “consequences”, “choices”, “consideration” and “taking responsibility” are not just abstract concepts.

Because of her familiarity with the concept of collective responsibility at daycare, she understands that the decisions we make at the ballot box go far beyond our household. Though the decision at the ballot box is made individually, the act of democratic and electoral participation is radically communal.

Or so I thought.

I spent a lot of time on social media this election (the one where a minority of Canadians gifted the rest of us a Harper Government 3), interacting with a number of people from all political stripes about their hopes and priorities for the country, and how they thought we would get there. It wasn’t always easy—hell, it wasn’t always respectful—and the post-election discourse brought with it a heightened sense of despair on the one hand and gleefulness on the other that degenerated into some fairly mean exchanges.

But one thing I found fascinating was the number of Conservative supporters on facebook and various discussion boards who trumpeted their pre-and post-election satisfaction that “Stephen Harper will put more money in my pocket.”

That claim always grated on me, but I was never sure why until I revisited that conversation with my daughter, and realized something: it never occurred to me to decide how to vote based on what I would personally gain.

I had never used “more money in my pocket” as the basis for choosing my elected representatives; maybe choosing an accountant…but certainly not a government.

I always thought that, especially for those in more privileged positions, our real responsibility was to consider how decisions made by politicians affect everyone—particularly those living precarious lives—not just the individual. But that act of collective democratic participation has been reconfigured as an expression of heightened individualism. It’s no longer about national direction and social progress. It’s about personal pocket change.

In this world, the election is the promise, and the “payment” is not in greater equality or well-funded hospitals or daycares or food and water and environmental standards or accessible and responsive government institutions or affordable education or justice for Indigenous people.  It’s in the write-offs and credits and cuts we see on April 30 when we file our taxes.

The slow but steady shift from communal decision-making to personal betterment might explain the defensiveness from Conservative voters post-election when their euphoria (or maybe it was gloating) was interrupted by a reminder of what a Harper majority government would mean for so many of us. “I resent being called mean-spirited or selfish on one hand, or stupid and uneducated on the other, for my decision” more than one person threw at me.

This response effectively deflects the reminder that their ballot box decisions have ramifications for a whole lot of other people: don’t tell me I’m selfish for thinking about what’s best for me. And don’t tell me I’m stupid for ignoring the evidence about who gets hurt.

But the defensiveness is telling—it suggests that perhaps this individualistic approach to democracy is not quite as natural as they would have us believe. Somewhere between “I’m looking after myself” and “screw the rest of you” is a space for potential change. And it’s in this space that we have to start the dialogue about restoring the notion of collective responsibility to the democratic process.

It may not be much, but it’s a start. And we know a majority of the electorate agree with this communal approach. They understand that elections are about more than pocket change. After all, we’re electing a government.

Not an accountant.

Erika Shaker is Director of the CCPA's Education Project.

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