On March 21, 2016, Nathaniel spoke on behalf of the Canadian delegation to the 134th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Lusaka, Zambia. The topic of the debate was “Rejuvenating democracy, giving voice to youth.” These are his remarks:
I am a 31 year old parliamentarian from Canada. My hope for the future is for more young parliamentarians to address this assembly.
I believe that the active involvement of young people will help to change our politics, and in doing so, will help to change our world.
First, there are the instrumental benefits in empowering a younger, more progressive voice, on issues from tackling climate change, to modernizing our government, to education and tuition funding, to electoral reform, to drug policy, to privacy rights, and on and on.
Young MPs also exhibit greater gender diversity, a topic of great discussion here at the IPU.
Overall, as a matter of inter-generational equity, it’s important for youth to have a real voice at the table.
There are also the intrinsic benefits of properly reflecting the significant youth population around the world.
So, how do we engage youth in politics?
First, embrace technology. There’s no magic to this – whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Periscope, or other social media – you need to use the communication platform relevant to your audience.
Second, expand education initiatives. Broadly, we need to end poverty and reduce barriers to education. More specifically, we need to expand civic education initiatives.
Unlike online platforms, this is not a new idea. George Washington once said that “a primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government.”
In many ways, teaching youth to consume news is the most important lesson, as the correlation between those who read current news and those who follow politics is significant. Creating familiarity with the electoral process is also critical. In Canada, in our recent election, 922,000 students cast votes in a mock election held in 6,662 schools.
Youth councils and youth caucuses within government and within political parties can also be effective. In the Liberal Party of Canada, of which I am a member, the student wing pushed policies onto the national agenda, from legalizing marijuana, to death with dignity, to ending the gay blood ban. It is important not only to listen, but to act on recommendations.
Electoral reform presents a great number of possibilities, from lowering the voting age, to electronic voting, to polling stations on campuses, to greater direct democracy through petitions that prompt government action, to larger reforms such as proportional representation or youth representative quotas.
We must also address issues most important to young people. I’ve mentioned some already, from protecting our environment, to ending poverty, to making education more affordable, to creating opportunities for young people in the face of unemployment and underemployment.
There is a long list.
Many ways of engaging youth in politics, and I haven’t yet touched on the most important: how we approach politics; how we think about politics; and how we act as politicians.
We need to be passionate and positive about the political process. Our politics should be about ideas, and our message should be an inspiring one. Citizens around the world – especially young people – deserve to be inspired by their representatives. Whether it’s President Obama’s message of hope, or Prime Minister Trudeau’s message that better is always possible, young voters respond to a positive message.
So find yours.
For my part, I believe that politics is a noble profession, and that our constituents should feel that same way when they see us in action. Politics, as frustrating as it can be, remains one of the most significant ways of making a real difference in other people’s lives, and we need to restore an idealism to our political process.
We must also be open and accessible at all times. To engage youth, you must be willing to answer any question. You must be accessible on a variety of platforms, not only to broadcast your message but to listen and respond to questions and concerns.
It also means seeking out young people who otherwise won’t seek out politics themselves. Get into schools. Tell them that the answer is participation. Remind students that not taking part in the world around them doesn’t stop the world around them from happening; it just means that it happens without them.
We are here to serve our constituents and our countries, and to be open and accessible in doing so. Both engagement and accountability depend on it.
Finally, be yourself. Not something politicians are often told, but be authentic. Young people – like all voters – become cynical towards the staged and manufactured character of modern politics. So allow yourself unscripted moments. Say what you really think, not only what your audience wants to hear.
Be honest. Tell the truth, and answer the question without repeating the same talking points. And it should go without saying that you must avoid corruption, as nothing damages the credibility of our institutions more.
Be principled. Stand up for what you believe in, not because it is popular but because it is the right thing to do. Claim some independence, and exercise it thoughtfully.
How do we engage youth in politics?
Be passionate and positive, open and accessible, authentic, honest and principled.
Now, I don’t pretend that these are prescriptions for getting elected. They may well be prescriptions for the opposite.
But follow this advice, and you will have gained the respect of young voters, and helped to rejuvenate our democracy.