Chapter 55: We Could Run This Country (If Only We Knew It)

This past July, just a week before Stephen Harper triggered one of the longest federal election campaigns in Canada’s history, I attended the 21st annual Elvis Festival in the town of Collingwood, Ont. Billed as the largest annual such festival outside of Memphis, the event drew over 30,000, almost doubling Collingwood’s population over its four-day run. The array of Elvi was impressive, but even more startling to me was the sheer concentration in the crowd of our demographic: Zoomer Nation. Since 2008, I’d been talking about the strange invisibility of our burgeoning group, which actuarial predictions led one to believe would one day soon be everywhere you turned. Finally, in Collingwood and increasingly at other political and cultural events I’ve been attending recently, that day appears to have arrived. Suddenly, we are present in all our impressive density.

Now that the election campaign is underway, I find myself thinking more about this weird disconnect, between the lingering perception of our gang as feeble and marginalized, and the reality of our numbers and the political attention being paid to us. Marginalized constituencies tend to get ignored, but all major parties have been vigorously throwing goodies our way. At the 2012 CARP AGM, NDP leader Tom Mulcair announced that the “first” thing he would do when his party came to power would be to wind the pension age back to 65 from the 67 that the Conservatives had then recently proclaimed. The federal Liberals have tossed in their hat by endorsing the Ontario Liberal promise to establish an Ontario Pension Plan to “supplement” CPP payments for many people who either don’t have workplace pensions or whose workplace pensions have disappeared. The Conservatives have shot back by doubling the amount a person can safeguard from taxes in a TFSA, and they now appear to be amenable to extending the allowable time period before RRSPs have to be liquidated; all in recognition of the fact that, Surprise! we’re living longer these days.

The good news about this flurry of vote-chasing is that “suddenly” it seems that everybody is saying nice things about us and certainly becoming more aware that we exist. The “bad” news for an organization like CARP is that for the first time in memory we find ourselves with no clearly defined antagonists and, generally speaking, advocacy works better if there is a grievance. From the point of view of growing membership, you could say we’d be better off if society were actually acting on the unspoken prejudice that seniors are an irrelevant group.

The impact that a villain can have on senior-issue activism is one of the underlying themes of a documentary VisionTV recently commissioned, called Pensioner Power. The program follows the rise and fall and rise of pensioner political success in Israel, Slovenia and, to some extent, Croatia. Israel is a good lab case because in fragmented, proportional-representation voting systems like theirs, small single-issue parties can wield outsize influence by acting as swing votes in coalition governments. No pensioner party has been more effective than Slovenia’s, which in the past few years has brought down a number of governments that have made the mistake of ignoring pensioners’ interests. Representing only 15 per cent of the Slovenian electorate, the Democratic Party of Pensioners has become so powerful that a “war of the generations” has come to dominate the political landscape in that country.

What do Slovenian seniors have that we don’t? For one thing, an actual political party. Five years ago, in Chapter 6 of The Zoomer Philosophy (“Politics of the Undead”), I proposed just such a party, ZIP: the Zoomer Inclusive Party. I was writing in reaction to our invisibility then on the political landscape. “For years, politicians have been treating us as if we’re already dead. Here’s a bulletin: we’re not!” Five years later, the way we’re being courted by all the political parties shows how much the situation has changed.

The second thing Slovenian seniors have that we don’t is a natural enemy; in their case, austerity. Specifically, I’m referring to the austerity measures currently in vogue in struggling European countries, where the first response of governments is often to slash pensions. Nothing gets people to the barricades faster than a force that wants to take back a critical part of their subsistence. Consequently, direct political participation is the European trend for special interest groups, compared to the North American approach of CARP and AARP, which have opted for the benefits of not having to line up with any one particular group seeking power. So when I first started mulling over the best ways to mobilize our demographic, my thought was to identify those ridings with the greatest concentration of older people – and then find an issue, like pension-slashing, to concentrate bloc voting.

Now, if this strikes you as a kind of fantasy, you’re right. It turns out Canadian seniors do have a natural enemy – and it’s us! Our enemy is our inability to see exactly how powerful we already are and can be.

Here are some statistics to illustrate what I’m saying. They’re readily available to anyone from Elections Canada and Stats Can, and many are drawn from the last federal election, in 2011.

1. In the 2011 election, voter turnout for the 18-44 age group averaged 47 per cent. There are 13,116,000 people in this group. Which means 6,164,520 of them voted in the last federal election.

2. Voter turnout for the 45-74 age group averaged 70 per cent. There are 13,138,000 people in this group. Which means 9,196,600 of them voted in the last federal election.

3. Voter turnout for the 75-plus age group averaged 60 per cent. There are 2,440,000 people in this group. Which means 1,464,000 of them voted in the last federal election.

4. The 45-plus group altogether (our demographic) comprises 15,578,000 people. This group cast 10,660,600 votes in the last federal election. Ergo, the adjusted average voter turnout for the 45-plus age group is 68.5 per cent.

5. Our 45-plus group makes up 54 per cent of the eligible Canadian voters. This means we already command a slim majority of the vote. If we consider voter turnout, though, and adjust our percentage of the electorate accordingly, we actually make up 63 per cent of the electorate. Which is to say, we cast 63 per cent of all the votes in the 2011 federal election, and every indication is that we will cast a similar percentage of the votes or more in this upcoming election.

6. Conclusion: Our group can control the total national vote with no help from alliances with any other group. Which seems to mean we should be able to control the upcoming election and the next few after that.

Alas, there’s a small if. If Canada had a proportional representation election system like Israel’s or Slovenia’s, we would indeed be able to control elections outright. But our system is still first-past-the-post. This means it’s possible for a party to actually win the broad popular vote but lose an election because it doesn’t have sufficient riding concentrations to win seats. So my initial impulse to target particular ridings where we definitely have the highest percentage of voters plus votes does make sense. But even the first-past-the-post complication doesn’t change how dramatic that 63 per cent figure really is. For years, we’ve been worried that our canoe is leaking, when all the time we’ve been driving an aircraft carrier. We are the opposite of the Slovenian pensioners’ party. We have at least the theoretical power not just to bring governments down but to elect them.

If proportional representation should ever come to Canada, does this mean we’d suddenly run amok and start voting only our own interests as some marauding bloc? Hardly. Surveys taken at this writing show that our demographic splits almost exactly the same way as the population at large in terms of party preference: currently, a third of us support each of the three main parties, creating a virtual standoff. Of course, we have shared interests, typically relating to health and money, which only makes sense: we aren’t just older people, we’re also parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. More important, we’re not close to monolithic. Our group includes rich and poor and those in-between, small “l” liberals and small “c” conservatives, left-leaners and right-leaners and centrists. We’re probably more like other Canadians in our differences than anything else. What’s indisputable, though, is that 63 per cent.

What we do or will do or should do with our growing political power is a subject for another conversation. But for now the numbers are in. We have the power, and Elvis is definitely in the building.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.