Federal New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair visited the University of Regina last week to discuss youth in politics. Before his speech, The Carillon had a chance to speak with Mulcair about his thoughts on the government’s role in post-secondary funding and the effect young people can have on the political landscape.
The Carillon: The NDP have had these talks all over Canada. What are you hoping to accomplish?
Tom Mulcair: Well it is not just me. I have made it a priority to get into campuses, but we also have a great cohort of MPs who were elected in May of 2011, so we have been sending them out across Canada as well. There is a new generation of MPs who are talking to students, and we are getting them charged up. It is basically a two-part thing. There has never been a generation of young people who are more involved than this one. They are involved in community groups, social activism, and environmental groups. But, maybe that is the fault of politicians from my generation in the sense that we are turning them off of the political process, but they are turning themselves off more and more from the political process, and those are the decisions that are going to affect them for the rest of their lives.
We really want to try and engage them and make them realize that what Harper is doing now affects the environment, affects the ecosystem long-term, and that there are economic decisions that affect them long-term.
We are trying to empower and make young people realize that they can do something, themselves, about these issues by becoming involved. Although they are busy, we are encouraging them to find some time to become involved in the political process itself.
60 per cent of students 18 to 25 did not vote in the last election, that is a terrifying statistic. We are going to do everything we can to change that. For example, we bend over backward to put polling booths in old folks homes, why can we do the same for university campuses? Why is that such a hard thing? Why can’t we make it really easy to vote? In the May election of 2011, the voting took place when students were in the middle of final exams, or moving to start a summer job.
You once said that “when young people don’t vote, the right wing wins and democracy loses.” What do you mean by that?
TM: Well, the right wing wins because their demographics goes to the polls; they know their demographic. And their demographic are people who have a much higher voter turnout percentage. Democracy loses in this situation because democracy is ‘people rule’ so if you have this whole swath of people from a certain age population that are no involved the voting process democracy loses because we have a government that doesn’t reflect the entire voting population. So we have to try so hard to get young people involved, and not only get them involved but get them excited.
I look with a little apprehension at the fact that 60 per cent [of voters 18 to 25] didn’t vote in the last election, and I’m going to look for the best way to encourage, insight, and engage them so they do come out and vote in the next election, and not let Stephen Harper win by default.
Do you have any specific ideas on how you would energize that 18 to 25-year-old demographic?
TM: There is a little bit of a push and pull that goes on. On one hand, we need to oppose what Harper is doing in government. At the same time, we need to propose what it is that we can do differently. It is a little bit that way with young people who will be voting for the first time, and we want them to see that [with Harper’s policies] that the next generation is being left with the biggest ecological, economical, and social debt in our history.
Ecologically we just have to look at how we are developing the oil sands at the moment: we are not making the polluters pay, and we are not internalizing the costs.
Economically, your generation is being left with the highest debt year-after-year. The average student finishes university with over 40,000 dollars in debt.
In terms of the social debt that we are leaving you, well, a large number of manufacturing jobs are leaving, and they are being replaced by low-paying, precarious work in the service industry with no pension to live on. And when those people move into retirement, your generation is going to have to pick up the slack for that as well.
So, it is making people conscious of what is going on, but it is also about making them realize that they can make a difference. And that is easy to say, but you have to convince people.
What have you learned about what students actually want from the Federal Government through this process?
TM: The concerns are largely environmental; we hear a lot of that. Most young people are a little bit less concerned about the economics, except for the fact that they realize that consistent failure to invest in post-secondary education is playing tricks on them, because they are being left with a massive debt. The only way to increase wealth is to increase knowledge.
The Federal Government should play a role in working with the provinces and territories to enhance what we are investing in post-secondary education and research, because I think right now we are starting to backslide in comparison with some other countries.
What are you doing to reach young people who are not in university?
TM: We try to engage them through the labour movement, because if they are not in university, then they are probably working. In our travels across Canada, we often get the chance to move onto the ‘shop floor’ and have those conversations as well. But, we have noticed that it is not just young people in universities that are not voting. It is across the board, so we have to engage both.
You once said “the Federal Government’s historic role in post-secondary education and research is something that we have to get back to.” What do you mean by that?
TM: Well, there was a time before the Paul Martin and Jean Chretien liberals that we were involved in post-secondary education. Now these are provincially-run institutions. The Federal Government doesn’t directly run universities, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot be involved in post-secondary. This disengagement that we are seeing now is only increasing the debt load for students, and it is becoming more and more difficult for universities to find funding at the provincial level.
We think that we should get back to the level of funding that we saw before the 1990s, before the Liberals started downloading that responsibility onto the provinces. We should never see a situation in a country as rich as Canada, where people who are capable of studying in university have to renounce their studies because they cannot afford it. That will hurt society in the long run. We are starting to see young people who are saying ‘I can’t afford to do that,” and that is a tragic loss for the whole society.
Are there any ways, specifically, that you guys were hoping to work with the provinces to fix the situation?
TM: Well, I think you have to sit down with the provinces and find out what everyone’s priorities are and then work on them. You can’t make these decisions unilaterally, precisely because it is provincial and territorial jurisdiction. You have to sit down and listen. One of the biggest problems that we have is unilateralism.
Would you guys look into forgiving a certain amount of the Federal Government’s portion of the student loans?
TM: I think that young people right now, especially young people who come from families who are financially challenged, are the ones who are being asked to leave university with the greatest debt. And I’m wondering: when do they become a part of our society and start taking advantage of that? So everything must be on the table when we are discussing these things with the provinces.
What do you think about Saskatchewan’s tuition rates. We are among the highest in the country?
TM: Well, I think that if it ever becomes a barrier for a young person who is capable of doing those studies from doing those studies, then they have been failed by their society. So, I want the first Federal NDP government to be sitting at the table with the provinces and territories to make sure the post-secondary education is affordable and accessible. I think we lose too much as a society if people who can go to university can’t because they cannot afford it. We have to be able to give young people that chance.