Demographic shift putting dream of lower taxes, balanced budgets and no cuts out of reach

By all indications, Manitoba’s provincial election on Tuesday is going to result in the election of the first Progressive Conservative government since 1999, with Brian Pallister being sworn in in late April or early May as Premier of Manitoba. As Pallister and his cabinet settle in to office, they will go through a ritual that all new governments go through: briefings by department staff who will explain the cold, hard realities that they will have to deal with as the excitement of winning an election wears off.

One of those cold, hard realities to be anticipated will be an update on how changing demographics will affect the province’s finances. The heavy influx of immigrants into Manitoba in recent years paints a picture of a young province; but the population data tells a different story.

Statistics Canada periodically updates its population projections for each Canadian province and territory, and its projections of population by age are sobering.

Over time, the balance between working-age Manitobans aged 15-64 and retirement-age Manitobans aged 65-plus has been shifting. Forty years ago, in 1976, there were 6.1 working-age Manitobans for every retirement-aged Manitoban.

Thirty years ago, in 1986, it was 5.3. Twenty years ago, in 1996, it was 4.8; rising slightly to 4.9 in 2006.

But despite the arrival of younger immigrants by the thousands, that ratio has resumed its decline over the past 10 years.

Currently, there are about 4.4 working-age Manitobans for each retirement-age Manitoban. And according to Statistics Canada’s M1 –medium-growth, 1991/1992 to 2010/2011 population trends, in just 10 years time, there will be one less person on the working-age side of the balance than there is today — or 3.4 to 1.

The change is expected to continue in this direction into the mid-2030s, when there will be three working-age Manitobans for every retirement-age Manitoban.

Number of working age Manitobans per retirement-age Manitoban by year. Based on Statistics Canada's Projected population, by projection scenario, age and sex, as of July 1 -- M1 medium-growth, 1991/1992 to 2010/2011 scenario.

Number of working age Manitobans per retirement-age Manitoban by year. Based on Statistics Canada’s Projected population, by projection scenario, age and sex, as of July 1 — M1 medium-growth, 1991/1992 to 2010/2011 scenario.

Why does this matter? As people retire, their spending changes. If you’re a working-age person, think of what you spend your money on today: transportation to and from work, food, clothing, shelter and income taxes.

Now think about how that would change if you were a retiree. You wouldn’t need to drive around so much (or buy a car or fill it up with gas as often). You would likely eat out less; you wouldn’t need neckties or dress shirts anymore except for special occasions; you may very well never be in the market to purchase a home ever again.

All of which means you’ll be paying less in sales taxes, even if the rates stays the same, and less in other government fees and taxes. That includes income tax, since you’ll be earning less. (As you can see below, the average Canadian household in which the designated “reference person” was aged 55-64 years in 2014 paid $18,220 in income tax. But when the “reference person” was aged 65 or older, average income tax payments dropped by more than half to $7,851.)

Average annual spending by Canadian households, by age of designated "reference person", Canada 2014

Average annual spending by Canadian households, by age of designated “reference person”, Canada 2014

The number of households in Manitoba (and throughout much of Canada) in which that “reference person” is one of those lower-spending 65-plus retirees is going to continue growing much faster than the number of younger, higher-spending households.

That’s going to put a bit of a squeeze on government finances, and on the businesses that sell those things on which spending drops the most in retirement: department and business-wear stores, restaurants, auto dealers, gas stations, realtors and so on.

Among the few areas where spending is higher among 65-plus households than it is among the 55-64s: direct health care costs, by $211 per year at the national level.

With that, the governments of the next 20 years will need to deal with a world where satisfying the dream of a balanced budget every year, no tax increases and no controversial cuts is an increasingly difficult task.

The importance of alcohol in community-building

On Dec. 23, Statistics Canada released its latest monthly estimates on how much business the nation’s drinking places were doing. A “drinking place”, as defined by Industry Canada, includes “bars, taverns or drinking places, primarily engaged in preparing and serving alcoholic beverages for immediate consumption”.

Out of pure curiosity, I used Statistics Canada’s CANSIM data portal to calculate each province’s per capita drinking-place receipts for the year from November 2014 through October 2015.

What I found was quite surprising: not only were Manitoba’s drinking-place sales of $24 per capita well below the national $61 average, but we were way down at the bottom of the nine provinces for which data are available. (British Columbia had the nation’s highest per-capita bar spending at $119, followed by Saskatchewan at $106 and Newfoundland and Labrador at $93.)


Per capita receipts reported by "Drinking Places", as defined by Industry Canada, Nov. 2014-Oct. 2015. Statistics Canada data excludes P.E.I. and the northern territories due to small sample sizes.

Per capita receipts reported by “Drinking Places”, as defined by Industry Canada, Nov. 2014-Oct. 2015. Statistics Canada data excludes P.E.I. and the northern territories due to small sample sizes.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. Manitoba started out in the 19th century as a chaotic frontier society, and over-compensated for the problems caused by drunkenness by establishing a liquor bureaucracy that even now retains rather restrictive liquor laws. Add to that a culture that still frowns upon alcohol consumption in the rural south; and the typically North American urban sprawl and car dependency, which necessarily puts limits on the ability of a group of friends to gather for a pint or two of beer on their way home — a limitation that those who can walk or take public transport home need not be so concerned with.

While all this might save Manitobans the inconvenience of loutish after-bar behaviour or of needing to step over vomit on the morning streets that go with the territory in more urban environments, it also raises the question of whether Manitoba’s weak bar and pub culture makes the province socially too closed for its own good.

This possibility goes back to a discussion I had a year or two ago with a Czech expatriate now living here who shared with me the one thing he disliked about life in Manitoba: that it was “a very lonely place”.

He had grown up and lived in a society where the local pub and pizzeria were not just places to eat or drink: they played a critical role in building and maintaining a sense of community — places where the locals gathered to share news, stay connected to old friends, and meet new ones.

Here in Winnipeg, he found that there was a huge void. The neighbourhoods had no natural gathering places, and were dull and lifeless — a collection of commuters who went straight home after work, closed and locked the door, and stayed there until the morning — with no real sense of community. “Nothing but houses,” he lamented.

As unfashionable as it might be to say this in our culture, alcohol has an important role to play in the building of a sense of community.

In her book Watching the English, British social anthropologist Kate Fox highlighted the importance of shared alcohol consumption to linking people together. The better any particular venue fared in what she referred to as “The SAS Test”, the more amenable it was to bringing people together:

“SAS stands for Sociability (by which I mean specifically the acceptability and ease of initiating conversation with strangers), Alcohol (an essential flirting aid among the inhibited English) and Shared-interest (environments in which people have interests in common, or a shared focus – settings likely to have the kinds of props and facilitators that help the English to overcome their social dis-ease).”

At the top of Fox’s list: the pubs for which British communities are famous. Though they only pass two-thirds of the SAS Test for lack of a shared interest, Fox noted that they do allow for informal introductions that make shared-interest finding possible.

Parties and nightclubs – two other areas in which alcohol consumption within moderation is encouraged – also ranked high on Fox’s list. At the bottom of the list: trains, supermarkets and galleries, which Fox described as “no-go areas” for making social connections.

In 2012, University of Pittsburgh researchers also found that moderate alcohol consumption played an important role in widening peoples’ social networks:

“[The researchers] concluded that alcohol stimulates social bonding, increases the amount of time people spend talking to one another, and reduces displays of negative emotions . . . Results showed that alcohol not only increased the frequency of ‘true’ smiles, but also enhanced the coordination of these smiles. In other words, alcohol enhanced the likelihood of ‘golden moments,’ with groups provided alcohol being more likely than those offered nonalcoholic beverages to have all three group members smile simultaneously. Participants in alcohol-drinking groups also likely reported greater social bonding than did the nonalcohol-drinking groups and were more likely to have all three members stay involved in the discussion.”

Such bridge-building between people matters. In 2010, this blog discussed the possibility that, in spite of the famous “Friendly Manitoba” slogan, our community is actually a bit hesitant to let newcomers into our existing, long-established and somewhat closed social circles. But the newcomers keep coming: in 2014, we welcomed more than 16,000 foreign newcomers to our province, and more are on the way.

This vastly increases the number of people living here who are in search of new social contacts to relieve the isolation of starting a new life in a place where, prior to arrival, they knew almost no one – or even no one at all. The constraints that restrict the number of places in Manitoba that pass “the SAS Test” serve to isolate newcomers and long-established residents alike.

In April 2016, Manitobans will venture to the polls to choose the government that will guide the province through the final years of the 2010s. In that election, further reforms to our traditionally strict liquor laws in such a way that will give our communities more places that pass “the SAS test” should be on the agenda. So too should be a discussion about the other choices that keep us atomized and prevent the development of a more meaningful sense of community by inhibiting even moderate alcohol consumption, such as the state of our semi-reliable public transit systems, the difficulties in obtaining taxis and/or shared-ride services, and the community-deadening effects of urban sprawl.

Think of the CMHR not as a destination, but as an add-on

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the "Everything Churchill" web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the “Everything Churchill” web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Since before the building even started to go up, there has been widespread confusion about the role that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) would play in Manitoba’s tourism industry. This was exemplified by a 2013 news release suggesting that the city would “welcome [a] surge of visitors” once the Museum opened — and by the disappointed tone of the news this week that a “measly” and “mere” one percent of visitors last month were international tourists from countries other than the U.S.

In fact, this one percent figure is entirely unsurprising, not least because only one-third as many foreign visitors enter Canada on a typical March day as arrive on a normal day during the July-August peak. Travel Manitoba’s latest annual report shows that non-U.S. international visitors made up one percent of tourists in Manitoba in 2012, so international visitors to the Museum are at the level one would expect.

By flipping through that report, it is not difficult to guess what draws many of those international visitors who, at $772 per person-visit, spent twice as much money here as interprovincial and U.S. visitors, and nearly eight times as much as intra-provincial tourists.

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

As many of the images in the report illustrate, Manitoba’s wilderness is the province’s number-one tourism advantage.

Let’s say you’re Derek and Laura, a fictional couple of empty-nesters in their late fifties from Nottingham, England, who have decided to finally splurge to take a Canadian rail holiday. Or Stefan, a 25-year-old German from Stuttgart, completing his first year of full-time office work and looking to take a holiday with his buddies that will really impress their friends following them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Offhand, Winnipeg is to them what Nottingham and Stuttgart, two cities similar to Winnipeg in size, are to us. Sure, there are some nice things to see and do in each, such as Wollaton Hall and the Robin Hood Town Tour in Nottingham, or Palace Square and the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. But unless you have a compelling reason as a Canadian tourist to go to these places, you’re probably not going to take time away from Europe’s much bigger draws to visit these medium-sized cities.

But if you’re Derek and Laura, taking a wobbly old train into the wild Canadian frontier to see polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights might just sound like the adventure of a lifetime. And for Stefan, being a young avid angler with money to spend, the idea of a week at a middle-of-nowhere fishing lodge angling for northern pike and walleye might sound like a fantastisch idea that could never be replicated in Germany.

And that’s where the CMHR could make sense for international visitors to Manitoba. Naturally, no one will visit Winnipeg just to see a museum any more than anyone would visit London just to see the Imperial War Museum.

But if you happen to be in Winnipeg anyway, it makes sense to go see the CMHR for a mere $15 more. If you’re Derek and Laura, you’ll want to allow the train at least a twelve-hour margin of error on the return trip — this isn’t Europe, where a 15-minute delay is considered “severe” — which might mean having a couple of days in Winnipeg during which to see a few sights.

And for Stefan and his buddies, Winnipeg would be a logical jumping-off point to the North, again allowing for a short stay in the city.

Now might be a good time to mention, however, that while the CMHR might have made it on to TripAdvisor’s list of Winnipeg attractions (at #19 as of April 28), the Museum gets no top-level mention on Frommer’s listing of Winnipeg attractions, and is similarly obscure on Virtual Tourist’s site. And as far as Fodor’s is concerned, Winnipeg doesn’t even exist. With the summer high season rapidly approaching, the marketers might want to get on the case, pronto.

Fat tax or no fat tax, obesity rates will be tough to cut without OPEC’s help

In 1967, Britain’s Labour government threw itself head-first into the world of urban planning. Keen to be seen as the man who would modernize Britain, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government took the first steps to build an entirely new city on the site of Milton Keynes, an obscure village roughly 90 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of central London.

The “new city”, as the built-up Milton Keynes was styled, would be the exact opposite of London, with its chaotic mix of pedestrians and vehicles in its narrow, winding streets, and its mix of businesses and residences within feet of one another.

Instead, Milton Keynes would become the first English city designed on North American suburban principles. Its streets would be set out in a grid pattern, and traffic lights would be synchronized, to ensure that traffic moved as quickly as possible. A network of paths, known as “redways”, would ensure that pedestrians and cyclists were kept well away from traffic. With plenty of green space, it was also billed as “a City in the Forest”.

Unlike other British and European cities, which lack a clearly defined “downtown” — the concept is largely a North American invention barely dating back a century — Milton Keynes would have a well-defined city centre, complete with an enormous shopping mall.

It was hoped that eventually 250,000 people would live in Milton Keynes, given its central location nearly equidistant from the two major cities of London and Birmingham, and the two great university towns of Cambridge and Oxford.

“MK”, as the city is known to locals, came tantalizingly close to hitting that 250,000 mark in the 2011 census, with an official Milton Keynes Urban Area count of 229,941 — an increase of nearly 25 percent over the 2001 population count.

Despite the rapid population growth, Milton Keynes is not universally seen as a success. “Even accountants find Milton Keynes boring,” said a cruelly mocking headline in Britain’s The Independent newspaper in 1998.  Three years later, when a BBC web site asked readers to name the most boring place on Earth, several readers nominated Milton Keynes. (Edmonton, here in Canada, also figured prominently.)

In addition to being “boring”, the British city designed around the automobile is now known for its residents’ weight problems: a new study from Public Health England reports that 72 percent of Milton Keynes adults are overweight or obese, the MK Web news site published on Tuesday.

My thoughts turned back to Milton Keynes the day after reading the above news story, upon hearing that the provincial government had considered, and then rejected, the idea of introducing a “healthy living levy” — a.k.a., a “fat tax” — to discourage Manitobans from eating unhealthy foods.

This was probably a sensible move after the Danish government was forced to repeal a tax on saturated fats after finding that it was too complicated to administer, and was encouraging Danes to make the short trip to Sweden and Germany to load up on food. (Being within the common-border Schengen zone, there are no limits on what Danes can bring back from Germany or Sweden for their own personal use; in fact, they’re unlikely to face any border checks at all.)

Yet Denmark hardly seems like a country with a pressing need for a “fat tax” at all. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) latest figures on adult obesity, only 13 percent of Danish adults were considered obese — barely half of Canada’s 24 percent obesity rate.

The two least-obese OECD countries were South Korea and Japan, where fewer than five percent of adults are obese, followed by Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Sweden and France — countries with varying climates and dietary traditions — with rates ranging from eight to 11 percent.

While the average Japanese and Korean citizen has a significantly lower daily caloric intake than the average Canadian — about 700 fewer calories per day in Japan, 500 fewer in South Korea — average daily caloric intake in most of the other countries is in roughly the same league as Canada.

The real difference between us and them is that, as Canadians, we’ve become Milton Keynesians. We live in cities that were designed around the assumption of nearly universal car ownership among adults, and neighbourhoods where the streets are nearly devoid of walkers — indeed, quite often, of any sign of human activity — because there is nowhere to walk to.

We take the calories in just as quickly as many slimmer Europeans — but those calories go back out as expended energy at a much slower rate.

There is little anyone can do to change the character of such neighbourhoods. They are here to stay, and there are more of them poised to come into existence all the time. And it’s a rare civic or provincial government that isn’t easily acquiescent to whatever is presented to it for approval.

The way our cities are designed, however, is also based on the assumption of inexpensive gasoline. Although it is fashionable in Canada to complain about the high price of gasoline compared to the United States, Canadian prices are bargain-basement compared to many of the lower-obesity countries noted above: a litre of gasoline costs more than $2 Cdn. in most of the other countries noted above, with the highest prices as of Feb. 5, 2014 being found in Italy ($2.67/litre), the Netherlands ($2.63) and Norway ($2.60).

Do higher fuel prices make it more enticing to be more physically active? The research certainly suggests so:

  • A 2008 study by Charles Courtemanche of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that “8% of the U.S.’ rise in obesity over the period 1979-2004 can be attributed to falling gas prices during that time . . . [and] a rise in gas prices increases walking or bicycling and decreases the amount people eat out at restaurants, explaining their effect on weight.”
  • And a 2011 study by Bisakha Sen of the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that while higher gas prices in the U.S. had a mildly positive effect in terms of getting people to walk or cycle more, there were stronger indicators that people do their own household and yard work during times of high gas prices instead of hiring others to do this work for them.

Thus, the best hope for reducing obesity rates in Canada might be for the OPEC oil producing countries to tighten up the oil supply, and send gasoline prices soaring — though that would not be without its own share of economic and political pain.

In the absence of that — and it is entirely possible that the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline will remain below $2.00 per litre in Canada for a long time to come — expect that high obesity rates will also continue to exist and even rise here in Canada until well into the future.

No such thing as the General Public

Some years ago, I worked on a project that involved making appointments with and interviewing corporate staff at zoos and aquariums around North America. Out of all the interesting conversations I had, the single most memorable line was, if memory serves me correctly, from an aquarium executive.

“There is no such thing as the general public,” he told me, only individuals looking out for opportunities that appeal to their own interests. The goal of marketing was to get the attention of that small slice of the wider population, and get them in the door.

That seems to be the logic behind Manitoba: Canada’s Heart Beats, a new promotional campaign unveiled last week by Travel Manitoba to social media reactions that ranged from lavish praise to harsh criticism.

As noted in a pre-release presentation, the campaign is intended to reach two segments of the traveling public who have the highest probability of visiting Manitoba for a leisure trip. One group, known as “Cultural Explorers“, are interested in hands-on involvement in a culture — think here of people who prefer to stay in small, intimate homestay or bed-and-breakfast accommodations. The other, known as “Authentic Experiencers“, tend to favour camping, hiking, getting close to wildlife and other outdoors activities.

Both groups, which each consist of about one-in-ten travelers in both Canada and the U.S. according to the Canadian Tourism Commission, tend to travel further from home and more often, and to spend more per visit.

And the other four-fifths of the market? This consists of seven other groups, each of which also makes up little more than a fraction of the marketplace.

  • Cultural history buffs: These travelers don’t just travel for fun — they travel to learn, or to pursue a hobby. They might come here if they have a hobby or interest that has a Manitoba angle; otherwise not.
  • Free spirits: No shady hostels for these folks. They like to be comfortable when they travel — which is as often as possible — and to visit exciting or exotic places. (This is the group I’m most closely aligned with, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission’s online quiz). As they tend to be drawn to top-billed destinations, it’s a challenge to draw them to less prominent markets.
  • Gentle explorers: This is a more conservative group in the sense of preferring the tried-and-tested over the brand-new. They’re often looking for package tours and a sense of structure. If Manitoba is already familiar to them, then all the better; but they are more comfortable with their favourite past destinations than with new and unfamiliar ones.
  • No-hassle travelers: Like the Gentle Explorers, this group also tends to favour the familiar. They tend to take shorter trips closer to home, and like to spend time with family and friends. Look for these within a few hours’ driving distance.
  • Personal history explorers: The name pretty much says it all. These are the sorts of people who go searching for their roots when they travel, whether it be learning more about their ancestors or visiting their great-grandparents homeland. Since Manitoba is a “young” province in the sense that many are the children, grandchildren or great-granchildren of immigrants, relatively few will have deep enough ancestral roots here.
  • Rejuvenators: These travelers hit the road to rest up and recharge their batteries, so to speak. They tend to enjoy resorts and casinos, and frequently travel with their families. Las Vegas, Hawai’i and other sun destinations will be a stronger draw than anything domestically.
  • Virtual travelers: This group is more the “staycation” type, preferring to stay close to home and more likely to attend family events. More or less a captive market.

See also:

Observations, Reservations, Conversations: Manitoba: Canada’s Heart…Beats

A very clever Turkish Airlines ad, in which Argentine-European footballer Lionel Messi and U.S. basketball star Kobe Bryant — evidently both a couple of Free Spirits — try to outdo one another.

Slurping our way to obesity

Winnipeggers' love of Slurpees even got the attention of CNN once. (Click for source.)

Winnipeggers’ love of Slurpees even got the attention of CNN once. (Click for source.)

Sitting in a London coffee shop this past April, watching people going about their daily lives on the sidewalk — ahem, pavement — on the opposite side of the floor-to-ceiling window, I devoted a bit of time to trying to figure something out: Why is it that people on this side of the Atlantic look better, on the whole, than people back home?

Could it be the body language? Perhaps. In the world’s big cities, people tend to walk with a briskness and assertiveness that contrasts with the easygoing saunter that all but the busiest Winnipeggers maintain.

Could it be the clothes? That would certainly explain part of the difference. In a global business capital, people are expected to dress the part, which means strong demand for suits and ties. Sweatpants and the “gangster” look were somewhat less commonly seen. Yet even then, many wore clothes that were no more formal than what would be considered normal at St. Vital Mall or on Corydon Ave. on a Saturday night, aside from a propensity on the part of both men and women for wearing scarves even when the temperature is in the teens Celsius.

Then it occurred to me what the most important distinguishing factor might be: a lot of people here look healthy and fit — or, at least, relatively few look blatantly unhealthy and unfit.

The stats seem to bear this out: a 2011 study found that obesity rates in the London area ranged from a low of 14 percent of adults in Kensington and Chelsea to a high of 29 percent in the eastern suburbs of Barking and Dagenham.

In Manitoba, by comparison, a 2011 Manitoba Centre for Health Policy report on obesity, based on data collected between 2004 and 2008, concluded that 28 percent of the province’s adult males and 26 percent of adult females are obese, based on a body-mass index of 30 or higher. (Note that these figures exclude on-reserve populations.)

In Winnipeg, the province’s least obesity-ridden regional health authority area, 25 percent of adult males and 22 percent of adult females were estimated to be obese. A lot of weight would have to be lost to get the city down to Kensington and Chelsea’s enviably low levels.

Conversely, less than one-half of the city’s adults — 45 percent of women and 30 percent of men — were estimated to be of normal weight for their size.

Londoners and residents of the cities to the east and south in continental Europe, of course, have an advantage. Even if they have a sedentary job, life in that part of the world tends to be more active. Walking is part of the local way of life, and needs to be given the high cost of gasoline (estimated by as of Wednesday evening at $2.19 Cdn. per litre in London, compared to $1.20 in Winnipeg) and commuting (non-inner-city Londoners are charged a £10 per day congestion charge, or $16 Cdn., to drive into central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays).

They also don’t consider the heavy consumption of sugary drinks to be a matter of civic pride.

That is in sharp contrast to Winnipeg, as the Winnipeg Sun reported this week:

For the 14th consecutive year, Manitoba’s capital has been named Slurpee Capital of the World, 7-Eleven announced Monday. This year, Winnipeg will also receive the first-ever Slurpee Capital Trophy Cup.

Winnipeg won the cup for having the highest average number of Slurpee cups sold per store in a region. Calgary and Detroit were close behind, 7-Eleven says.

“Canada can no longer be complacent with this title as we have some serious competition globally,” Tim Donegan, vice president for 7-Eleven Canada, said in a media release. “But we have faith in Manitobans and their passion for all things Slurpee. It’s a title they’re extremely proud of and it really shows how Slurpee is truly a part of our culture — it’ll take a lot to beat that.”

It’s not clear how the “first-ever Slurpee Capital Trophy Cup” will differ from the “Slurpee Capital of the World trophy” accepted last year by city councilor Grant Nordman as Metro Winnipeg reported on July 9, 2012:

“This being the largest slurpee store in the world is really quite an accomplishment,” said Nordman, as he sipped on a Crush Lite Cream Soda Slurpee, which, he added, has 30% less calories and is a more healthy option.

Quite rightfully, that didn’t convince Twitter user @CoachV_HLF.

“This [is] horrible, we are the Diabetes capital of Canada and our city councillor is supporting the idea of slurpees being special,” “Coach” wrote in response to a CTV Winnipeg tweet promoting the 2012 event.

Such sugary beverages, including Councilor Nordman’s Crush Lite Cream Soda Slurpee, are indeed hardly beneficial for Winnipeggers’ health. A fact sheet published by the Harvard School of Public Health (c. 2012) noted that regular sugary drink consumption contributes to weight gain and higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks or gout.

If you accept the premise that Winnipeggers would feel better about our city and ourselves if both the city and its citizenry took a little more pride in appearances — shrinking rather than expanding waistlines, and fewer discarded Slurpee cups strewn about, for example — then Slurpees are of little benefit to the city’s collective self-confidence.

Thus, Manitoba’s politicians would be well advised to stay away from the Slurpee bandwagon.

It could always be worse, however. Earlier this year, Mississippi legislators passed a law that, in the words of the Washington Post, “bars counties from passing and enacting laws that require calorie counts to be posted or caps the size of beverages or foods.” (This being the state with its own Brain Drain Commission, which is casting about trying to understand why the state’s best and brightest young people dream of leaving as soon as possible, and even candidly admits on its web site that the state is “perpetually behind the curve”.)

A memo to the NDP convention in Brandon


From: The View From Seven

To: Manitoba NDP convention, Brandon

Re: Compulsory Voting

Dear Convention Delegates:

As you gather this coming weekend for your party’s provincial convention in Brandon, it is noteworthy that you will be discussing a proposal from your Elmwood constituency association which would, to quote the Winnipeg Free Press, “[r]ecommend the legislative assembly strike an all-party committee to study compulsory voting.” I have not seen the resolution’s exact text, but presume it would be similar to one crafted by the federal Elmwood-Transcona constituency association.

I hope you will accept a few questions from an independent voter with an admittedly varied party-voting history — though my turnout for elections has been good overall.

  • How much would the penalty be? The Elmwood-Transcona resolution notes that compulsory voting is used in several countries. In Australia, the federal Electoral Commission “will write to all apparent non-voters requesting that they either provide a reason for their failure to vote or pay a $20 [$20 Cdn.] penalty”. In Belgium, fines range from €25 ($33 Cdn.) for a first-time offence to €125 ($167 Cdn.) for repeat offenders.
  • How would a compulsory voting law be enforced? Note that the Australian Electoral Commission only applies penalties to “apparent non-voters”. This suggests that there are two ways to avoid being fined: a.) Vote, or, b.) Stay below the radar. If the same process were used in Canada, a compulsory voting law could have the perverse effect of encouraging the politically disillusioned to not be enumerated at all — which would only reduce their chances of ever going to the polls that much further.
  • Would these fines not fall disproportionately upon those least able to pay them? Note the graph on printed page 4 (PDF page 7) of the Manitoba Institute for Policy Research’s report, Voter Turnout in Manitoba: An Ecological Analysis. It shows that in 2007, higher-income areas tended to have the highest turnout rates (River Heights being the highest at a 69.4% turnout), while lower-income constituencies tended to dominate the lower end of the list (the lowest turnout being Rupertsland’s 33.5%).

    While low turnout might be attributable in part to how close the contest is — River Heights is a historically competitive riding, Rupertsland/Keewatinook less so — Statistics Canada has also noted that voting rates tend to be higher among homeowners and the well-educated. They also observed that, “immigrants, renters, the unemployed and people with children were significantly less likely to vote”.

  • Would compulsory voting really lead to better citizen engagement? A 2008 study by three academics at the Université de Montréal casts doubt on this assumption. While they agreed that “[c]ountries which have compulsory voting exhibit significantly higher levels of voter turnout”, their findings also showed that “avoiding forgoing money cannot be assumed to be a sufficient motivator for getting [a person] to learn more about politics.”

    They also cited studies showing that fine-avoiding voters in Belgium were less knowledgeable about, and less engaged in, politics than those who would likely have shown up to vote even without the threat of penalty; and that Australians were generally no better informed about politics than the British were, despite compulsory voting being the law in the former but not the latter country.

I should note that if compulsory voting were to become law in Manitoba, this would inflame the debate about per-vote subsidies, as this subsidy would become significantly less voluntary than before.

I would also note that the politically disengaged do not “owe” their vote to any politician, party or elected body. It is the sole responsibility of those who seek public office to earn these votes.

Before you debate compulsory voting this weekend in Brandon, I would encourage you to study the material at the links above. I would also encourage you to study the IDEA Voter Turnout Database, and to ask what could be learned from countries with relatively high voluntary voter turnout rates such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and New Zealand.

All the best in your deliberations on this important subject.