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Happy New Year! Get ready for generational change in Canadian politics

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Don Iveson (with David Climenhaga)

"Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"
– Bob Dylan, 72, Ballad of a Thin Man

Happy New Year!

Something really is happening here and I don't know exactly what it is. But I'll tell you one thing: generational change is coming to Canadian politics.

You may not have noticed, but Canadian voters -- including quite a few who are not young people -- have decided, "It's time…"

I know this is not the prevailing gloomy narrative of the punditocracy, ably expressed by journalist Michael Valpy, 71, who seems to feel that alienated and unhappy young Canadians don't vote, won't vote and nothing will ever change for the better to make them vote.

"Canada never before in its history has had such a high proportion of old people, leading perhaps to a culture of wisdom but also to a culture of fear and crankiness," Valpy wrote in the 2013 Atkinson Series. "How Canadians collectively will deal with this demographic tilt is unknown territory."

Well, I'm one geezer who says we've turned the corner on this trend, even if neither the meaning nor the impact have fully sunk in yet.

I mean, sooner or later generational change is coming regardless. That's science that even the morally certain Biblical literalists of the Harper Government can't and won't deny. It's said here, though, that it's about to come in a wave -- much sooner, with a bigger impact, than most of us, old or young, are expecting.

If you don't like it -- and some of us won't -- oh well, you're just going to have to get used to it. No generation in history has thought the next one quite came up to its high standards. If they hadn't been mostly wrong, though, we'd still be scratching pictures on cave walls instead of filing blog posts to Rabble.ca!

But it's said here this phenomenon is going to have a particular, and quite possibly surprising, impact in 2014 and the couple of years immediately thereafter. To wit: 2015, in which Canada is expected to have a federal election, and 2016, in which the same thing is supposed to happen here in Alberta.

All that said, I wouldn't be so bold as to predict very confidently what this means in terms of the philosophy that dominates Canadian political life.

My guess is, though, if you're a Canadian conservative of a type particularly associated with parts of Western Canada -- that is, male, white, socially conservative, reflexively religious, economically pleased with yourself and a little more cranky and threatened each passing year, a description that applies to a lot of people of my generation -- this wind will not bear what you think of as good news.

Maybe it'll turn out just to be a matter of which party had the good sense or good luck to choose a youthful leader, with great hair, a nice chin and even a name that appeals to aging Boomers. You all know whom I mean.

But maybe the laurels will go to whichever party actually does its homework and makes the effort to line up the most energetic, engaged and youthful candidates. In which case, it's not at all clear it'll be the same party as the one with the youthful leader that reaps the benefits.

Regardless, in the upcoming federal election in particular, where any of the three major national parties could emerge the winner, and no one really has a clue in a carload what's going to happen next despite their confidently spun predictions, getting this one right could turn out to be crucially important.

My colleague Dave Cournoyer, 30, was the first political observer I am aware of to spot this trend in action and write about it.

He explained in a recent post on his Daveberta.ca blog that it wasn't just that the youngest candidate won in the recent City of Edmonton civic election, but how convincingly Don Iveson won it. Moreover, he pointed out, the Oct. 21 Edmonton civic election's unexpected outcome left the professional pundits of the mainstream media gobsmacked and reeling with confusion from which many have not yet recovered.

"Framed as a lacklustre and uneventful campaign, local media and many mainstream pundits missed one of the most important stories of this year's mayoral election in Edmonton," Cournoyer wrote.

To wit: Instead of packing their bags for Vancouver, Toronto or New York, a lot of young people from Edmonton decided to stick around, bought into the community and made a decision to raise their families here -- and, without hardly anyone noticing, got politically engaged and made a huge difference at the ballot box.

"This important shift is a key part of what Don Iveson represented on the campaign trail this fall," Cournoyer argued. "Supported by a diverse army of young Edmontonians who want to claim this city for the next generation, Mr. Iveson proved that substance and a positive campaign -- or 'politics in full sentences' -- can win elections."

The professional pundits had all called a horserace among the three main candidates -- the mildly progressive Iveson, 34; would-be Rob Ford conservative and former Sun columnist Kerry Diotte, who at 57 was no spring chicken and whose claim to fame was mainly being angry about potholes; and Boomer Karen Leibovici, who has provided great service through her long political career as a Liberal MLA and city councillor, but who at 61 was getting a little long in the tooth as far as a lot of voters were concerned.

In the event, on voting day, Iveson skated away with it -- sweeping the field with 63 per cent of the vote to less than 20 per cent for either of the others.

Now, obviously, with numbers like that, it wasn't just young people who were voting for Iveson.

Obviously, too, there were other factors: Iveson clearly outshone the other two for ideas, communication skills and likability. Still, do not doubt that his relative youth had plenty to do with his appeal to voters of all ages -- but, particularly importantly, engaged young voters.

Nor, by the way, was Leibovici the only sixty-something candidate with a solid record of service beaten by younger and more appealing candidates on Alberta's municipal election day -- and I’m still pouting about it. Seriously, though, while a few old wheezes managed to cling to office, younger mayors and councils are an emerging trend across this province.

Will this make our governments more progressive, more open to new ideas? I hope so. In my most optimistic moments, I even think so -- although I also recognize that this province is full of young Conservatives, old before their times, who are proof of the adage, "No shirt's too young to stuff."

And if voters just want young, and don't particularly care what that youth chooses to represent, we're likely in for more of the sickening same. But hope springs eternal, and I don't really think so.

I think two things have happened: First, voters of all ages have decided that it's time to freshen up the political lineup with some new blood. Second, Canadians, even a lot of fairly conservative Western Canadians, are sick and tired of the politics symbolized by Stephen Harper, who at what should be a still-youthful 54 seems more like an older and crabbier version of his Reform Party elder and better, Preston Manning, who is 71.

Never mind Harper's policy preferences for pipelines, petroleum and no pot, or his attack on science, or even his transparent dissembling about the sleaze of Duffygate. If this supposition is right, the Tory election machine's emphasis on the supposed experience of Harper, who it can be argued has in fact never held a real job outside politics, may actually present a serious threat to the Old Man!

Clearly, the governing Tories have an inkling of this, and Harper's recent effort to shuffle such post-Boomer MPs as (future prime minister?) Lisa Raitt, 45, Pierre Pollievre, 34, and Michelle Rempel, 33, into prominent cabinet positions is an attempt to respond. And this from a party that just two and a half years ago was mocking the relative youth of the NDP’s Quebec caucus!

Well, something bigger is going on here than can be overcome with a few cosmetic changes on the government's front bench.

It'll be hard for oldsters of all political stripes to give way. But it need not be as hard as we all think right this minute. Voters of all ages, after all, already seem to be getting there ahead of the pols and pundits.

The first party to figure this out and respond by picking significant numbers of candidates like Iveson has the opportunity to rock our Canadian political world!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

 

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