National Column: Millennials helped, and could hurt, PM

by Chantal Hébert

But for young millennial voters Justin Trudeau might not have won a majority victory last fall.

As an Abacus Data study confirmed this week, the younger cohort of the electorate tilted the balance in favour of the Liberals. By turning out in greater numbers and coalescing behind Trudeau, voters aged 18 to 25 almost certainly made a difference between a minority and a majority.

Early indications suggest the Liberals were the preferred choice of a plurality of younger voters (45 per cent) beating the NDP (25 per cent) and the Conservatives (20 per cent). In comparison to 2011, turnout among that age group went up 12 percentage points.

Before dismissing the growth of the youth vote and its impact on the election outcome as a one off – essentially due to Trudeau’s status as a political rock star – it might be prudent to consider that the reverse could turn out to be true.

In politics, empowerment and engagement tend to come as a pair. The sense that one’s vote can make a difference is one of the main incentives to continue exercising one’s franchise. On that score, the experience was positive for many of those who voted for the first time in 2015.

In the big picture, no federal party can afford to ignore the changing demographics of the electorate. As the Abacus report points out, by the next election all millennials (born approximately between 1980 and
2000) will have a vote. Their generation will make up the electorate’s largest cohort.

The Liberals were the main beneficiaries of a higher level of youth engagement in the electoral process last fall but that does not mean they can take that support for granted.

Come 2019, Trudeau’s edge with young voters could be blunted by the upcoming leadership changes at the helm of the other parties. Over the course of his first mandate, Trudeau also stands to lose some of the patina that allowed him to cast himself as the greatest agent of change last fall. It is often easier to act like an underdog than an incumbent.

Many New Democrats came out of the 2015 campaign feeling they had been outflanked on the front of generational change. That widespread sense contributed to Thomas Mulcair’s demise at the hands of party members earlier this month.

But before the NDP concludes that a younger leader could act as a magic bullet for what ails it, it might consider that under Jack Layton, in 2011, the NDP was the preferred choice of the younger cohort.

Mulcair’s failure to keep that connection alive had more to do with the larger failure of the NDP campaign to connect with the electorate at large than with the age of the leader.

More so than any of its predecessors, the millennial generation was raised in a culturally diverse Canada.

That theme happens to be a constant in Trudeau’s political discourse and it is reflected in his caucus. Looking at the delegates at the NDP convention in Edmonton, one had to look hard for evidence of the country’s cultural diversity.

Even before the last election polls showed that if younger voters were left to decide who should run Canada, the Conservatives would come dead last – behind the Green party. Under Stephen Harper the party worked hard at hanging on to that last place.

The dismissive Conservative discourse on climate change; the reluctant acceptance of marriage rights for same-sex couples; the over-the-top fear campaign over the legalization of marijuana all seemed designed to drive millennials away. The party’s reductive depiction of Trudeau’s leadership might as well have been calculated to come across as a generational put-down.

Like their elders, younger Canadians believe bread-and-butter issues like jobs should sit at the top of the to-do list of the federal government. But also like a majority of their elders, they crave aspirational politics and believe in the virtues of government activism.

Those are generational traits that a decade of Conservative counter spin probably exacerbated rather than diminished. On that basis, Trudeau should share the credit for the higher youth engagement that had such defining impact on the last election with Harper.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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