Second reading of Bill S-209, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Regulation Adapting the Canada Elections Act for the Purposes of a Referendum (voting age)

By: The Hon. Terry Mercer

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Hon. Terry M. Mercer: Honourable colleagues, as I stand to enter debate on this bill, I want to remind some of you who may not have read my glorious resumé that I have had the privilege in my career of being the executive director of a political party in Nova Scotia. I’ve also had the honour to be the national director of the most successful political party in Canada nationally, and I also had the opportunity of working with hundreds and hundreds of young, active participants in the political process.

An Hon. Senator: That’s why you are a progressive.

Senator Mercer: In my previous life, when I was an active member of the Liberal Party.

The point of this bill is very good. Senator Housakos commented on the fact that political parties have memberships starting at age 14. Many successful political parties and candidates, both provincially and federally, know that engaging young people is providing energy. Yes, they put up signs and they stuff envelopes, but they also bring their ideas. And Senator Jaffer is nodding her head because she knows this herself; she has two children who are very active in a political party at a very young age.

I can’t name all of the bills or all of the laws that I have seen that were developed by Young Liberals in Nova Scotia, and Young Liberals across Canada, that have then ended up as legislation.

I remember when I was a Young Liberal. Anne McLellan, the future Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, and Mary Clancy, the future member of Parliament from Halifax, the three of us were on the executive of a group called the Student Liberal Association. I represented Saint Mary’s University, McClellan represented Dalhousie and Mary Clancy represented Mount Saint Vincent. Years later, as luck would have it, we found ourselves standing on Parliament Hill together, they as members of Parliament and I as the national director of their political party.

The engagement of young people puts energy into politics. Some of you have come here and said you’re not political. Some of you have actually said that you don’t like political parties. Guess what, folks? That’s what makes this place work. That’s what makes the place across the street work.

All political parties up there are driven by volunteers, and the successful ones — the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, and to a lesser extent the New Democrats — are driven by young people. Senator Housakos was right when he talked about young people joining — in his case, the Conservative Party — a political party and making the changes within the party that are really important.

When I was a Young Liberal, I was so proud to go to a convention. When we called for the legalization of marijuana — it was a long time ago. But I was also very proud when I stood in this place and voted to legalize marijuana, finally. So some of the work we started does take a little time to get here.

However, I would encourage you to consider supporting Senator McPhedran’s bill. It is a dynamic change. In the first election after we pass this bill, you will notice a huge difference in how politics will happen. It will be a lot more fun, I can tell you that. I was always able to enjoy the energy that young people brought to the game. And, yes, they were also providing a great deal of support in getting our job done.

As a matter of fact, if you want to talk to people who have been through the process of being active in political parties as a young person, Greg Fergus, the Member of Parliament for Hull—Aylmer, Quebec was active for a long time as a young person. He was at one time president of the Young Liberals of Canada.

The former Speaker of the House of Commons, Geoff Regan, was very active in the Nova Scotia Young Liberals. I remember as an executive director, I was invited to come to speak to the Young Liberals and I said, “Do I need to bring anything?” They said, “Yes, a case of beer.” Which I did.

It is a great place for young people to cut their teeth on public engagement. Yes, many of them stay involved for years. Others across the country get involved in other aspects of politics. Some of them get involved in the administration of government in one form or another, but they come with the knowledge of how the political process works.

One of the frustrations that I’ve seen from some of you who are new to the chamber is not knowing how the process works. If you had been involved politically as a young person, or as an adult, you would have been able to be engaged. Some of you are still critical of the political process. Guess what? You’re involved in the political process, and it is so much better if you start off as a young person.

I am privileged, as I say, to have been the executive director of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia and national director of the Liberal Party of Canada. I’m also very proud of the fact that my son is now Executive Director of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia. He wants me to remind future leaders that he wants to follow the rest of my career and end up in the Senate. I said, “You’re on your own from here, pal.”

It is so important that we engage young people in public discussion. Colleagues who have been here for a while will remember my discussion about providing vehicles for young people to be engaged. We’re not talking about being engaged in politics, but being engaged in the community. I live in a very small village outside of Halifax. Like all communities, we have good things happening, but we also have some things that aren’t so good. A number of years ago — about eight or nine years ago now — a group of people came together and decided they needed to find something to engage young people in the community. They formed a Sea Cadets corps in the community. My son, the same guy who is Executive Director of the party in Nova Scotia, was an officer in the cadet program. He was a naval lieutenant. He got involved in the local corps as an instructor and became the commanding officer as well.

The major point to this story is that after a couple of years, I met with the RCMP officers who police our community, and I said, “What’s the difference now, with the cadet program in the community, compared to before?” They said it’s night and day. It’s night and day because the young people were engaged in the community. It became their community. They helped manage it. They did things that the rest of us didn’t do, cleaning up the place that needed to be cleaned up; it was engagement.

I asked the principal of the local school what effect it had. She said it was like night and day. The young people who might have been on the edge of getting into trouble were now engaged.

This is an opportunity to engage an awful lot of young people in the political process, and that would be good for the political process. It would be good for Canada. Yes, it may be good for certain political parties, but guess what? That’s important too. The health of the Conservative Party is an important thing.

Senator Plett: Hear, hear.

Senator Mercer: Not as important as the health of the Liberal Party, but that’s okay. It’s our democracy. We’re helping teach young people to be good Canadians, and are giving them an opportunity to be good Canadians by getting out there and voting at age 16. What a change we would be making to our democracy.

I thank Senator McPhedran for bringing this forward. I’m sorry I couldn’t make the webinar this morning. Colleagues, I would encourage you to support this bill. It’s an important bill. If we ever get this passed, you will look back on it after the next couple of elections and say, “Boy, did we do good work.” Thank you, colleagues.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Senator Mercer, would you accept a question?

Senator Mercer: Yes.

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Thank you, Senators McPhedran and Mercer, for your presentations. I believe part of the success of the Liberal Party — I can only talk about the Liberal Party — is due to the vision of the young people within our midst. It’s not just to vote but the power to vote, so they can set the agenda. You remember that the same-sex marriage idea came from the 14- and 16-year-olds, and they would not let the party get away with not setting up legislation. Would you agree with me, Senator Mercer? The vote gives them the right to bring up policies that matter in their lives.

Senator Mercer: I think that those of you who have not been involved in a political party would not know — and Senator Jaffer certainly does — that the youth wings of political parties are the most powerful wing of the party, because they’ve got the energy and they’re disciplined when there’s something that they want. For example, I talked about the motions years ago for the legalization of marijuana. Guess what? That came up time and again, because Young Liberals in my political process — my history — wouldn’t let it go. And as they got older, some of those people are the members of Parliament who helped bring in the legislation that we also passed here.

It’s the energy that they bring. As I said, pass this bill and make it law, and you will notice a huge difference in the next two elections and elections beyond that.

Senator McPhedran: May I ask a question of Senator Mercer? It’s a bit of a historical question. In our research, it was actually brought to my attention by a former young leader in Nova Scotia that policies of the Liberal Party of Canada contain a policy adopted, I believe, at a 2009 convention, to lower the federal voting age to 16. My understanding was that that actually came from Nova Scotia, and I wonder if you can confirm that.

Senator Mercer: Yes, indeed it did, but with the concurrence of Young Liberals from elsewhere. Again, I was at the convention where that passed. Young people are so energetic but sometimes are not disciplined in meetings. When this motion was coming up at the meeting, the process required that they get it to the second level at the convention to actually get it into the policy of the party. Every Young Liberal who was at that convention was in that room. They knew they had the power to change the policy of the party, and they did change the policy of the party.

In the Liberal Party — and I don’t know about the Conservative Party — if a policy was adopted by the party and we were the party in power, then the parliamentary wing had to report back to the party annually on what process was made on the policies that the party had adopted. Every year they came back and said the marijuana one — they hadn’t got to that yet. However, it’s very real, and I remember, years later, I was the one who had to publish the reports when I was the editor of the documents that went to conventions. So yes, it’s very important.

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