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'Zoomer' Voters Wield Clout

Seniors' turnout is so high, some say, each carries weight of two younger eligible voters.

Crawford Kilian 7 Oct 2008TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Retired and feeling neglected by parties.

In at least some key B.C. ridings, seniors may well decide the outcome of this election. Their electoral firepower, where it's concentrated, deserves respect.

In Victoria, for example, residents 65 and older numbered over 62,000 in 2007. That's roughly one-third of the Capital District's total voting-age population.

In Greater Vancouver, last year's population over 65 years old was about 392,000 -- again, roughly one-third of the 1.2 million voters in the region.

Not only are they a high proportion of the electorate, seniors' impact is enhanced by their high turnout on election day. According to Elections Canada, the number of voters aged 18 to 24 spiked by almost 7 per cent in the 2006 federal election. But turnout in that group was still 19 percentage points below the national average.

That average turnout has been declining for generations. In the late 1950s and 1960s, turnout ranged from 79 to 75 per cent. Since the 1980s, when turnout was 75 per cent, it's sagged to a low of 61 per cent in 2004 with a slight uptick to 64 per cent in 2006.

But when you look at the 2006 election by age group, you find that today's seniors are voting at a rate that all Canadians did when Dief was running half a century ago. In 2006, voters aged 55-64 had a 75.4 per cent turnout. It was 77.5 per cent for those 65 to 74, and three out of five of those over 75 voted as well.

By comparison, only about 44 per cent of the 18 to 24 cohort bothered to vote. Even those 25 to 34 couldn't quite manage a 50 per cent turnout.

Seniors want respect

You might think politicians would write off young voters as a waste of time, while cultivating seniors with boxes of chocolates and daily phone calls. That's not the case.

The Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of BC (COSCO) isn't very happy about the neglect it's getting. Neither is the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP).

The current president of COSCO is Art Kube. During the Socred government years of 1983-84, he was head of the BC Federation of Labour, fighting Bill Bennett's "restraint" budget while B.C. teetered on the edge of a general strike.

Age hasn't mellowed him. "A majority Tory government would be a disaster," he told The Tyee. COSCO is promoting strategic voting: Supporting whatever candidate in a riding who can keep a Conservative from winning.

COSCO's latest newsletter is not Conservative-friendly. Its editorial says:

"The possibility of a conservative majority in Ottawa does not bode well for the good and welfare of seniors. With a somewhat hamstrung and less-than-competent opposition the Harper government was able to push through legislation which brought some shifts of income in favor of higher income brackets.

"In addition this government reduced taxes on corporations by fifty billion dollars, which in the short and long term will deprive future governments' ability to improve programs and balance budgets.

"The Harper government refused to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which would protect seniors from steep increases in housing, food and energy costs. The Harper government also refused to enforce the Canada Health Act when it came to private clinics charging for services covered by the Act.

"Our National Pensioners and Senior Citizens Federation told us that every time they had their lobby in Ottawa, Conservative Cabinet Ministers and Tory Members of Parliament refused to meet with them, whereas in previous governments at least the Minister in charge of seniors would meet with the seniors' delegation.

"The Harper Government has not been seniors friendly, far from it."

Znaimer's Zoomers

Meanwhile, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons is damning and blasting all the parties while re-branding itself. As the first baby boomers hit 65, CARP is aggressively recruiting the 45+ kids born in the mid-1960s, and naming them the "Zoomers."

Konstantin Bernaschek, CARP's Vancouver representative, says the organization has sought out younger members -- Zoomers -- since media mogul Moses Znaimer was elected executive director a year ago.

An article on CARP's website argues that politicians ignore the Zoomers at their peril: "Zoomers are the most politically engaged Canadians," said Susan Eng, CARP's vice president of Advocacy at a news conference. "A full 70 per cent of eligible voters in this age group cast their ballots in the 2004 election... Zoomers own the ballot box."

After dismissing the "paternalistic, condescending" attitude of the political parties, the article sets out CARP's five priorities:

Two for one?

But will seniors and their kid brothers and sisters actually make a difference?

Art Kube argues that the turnout makes old people truly senior citizens: A senior vote is effectively worth two votes from young and middle-aged voters.

But statistics show seniors tend to vote in old age as they did in their youth. The kids who voted for Diefenbaker are now voting for Harper. The young women who fell for Pierre Trudeau are now grandmas, voting for Dion. Young Dippers who idolized Tommy Douglas and Dave Barrett hope that Jack Layton will deliver on their ideals.

Still, seniors are experiencing issues that will become more prominent as the boomers age. If not in this election, then in the next, Canadians and their representatives will have to confront the urgent needs of their parents and grandparents -- needs that have nothing to do with Afghanistan and little to do with cheap gasoline.

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