Thursday, September 30, 2004
POLITICS AS USUAL: YOUNG MP
Youth on their side
Young Tory MPs created in Stephen Harper's political image
September 30, 2004
OTTAWA - They look like the typical political staffers that buzz around all members of Parliament -- young, shiny Echo Boomers, fresh out of school and brimming with vim and idealism. But while Jeremy Harrison, 26, Pierre Poilievre, 25, and Andrew Scheer, 25, used to work behind the scenes on Parliament Hill, yesterday they were attending MPs' school as the three youngest politicians in the House of Commons ahead of next week's new session.
Harrison, the fresh-faced Conservative MP for the Desneth Missinippi Churchill River riding in northern Saskatchewan, said he has had trouble convincing overzealous security guards that he is one of the latest crop of honourable members. "It was amusing at first, but it's starting to get annoying," he said.
All three debutants are Conservatives, following in the tradition of the class of '97 -- Jason Kenney, Rob Anders, Rahim Jaffer -- bright, outspoken and university-educated. Like the infamous Snack Pack, the next generation of Conservatives has only a nodding acquaintance with the world of mortgages and taxation. But they all pledge they will make up for what they lack in experience with the exuberance of youth.
"I feel completely prepared for this job -- I don't feel lacki
ng in any area. I'm ready to walk in for Question Period totally equipped if my leader asked me to ask a question," said Poilievre, who unseated Cabinet minister David Pratt to win Nepean Carleton in Ottawa.
The election of this new frat pack will have delighted party leader Stephen Harper. Not only has he transplanted some youth on to his greying, balding backbenches, but those members are all created in his political image.
"We're pretty similar politically," said Poilievre, "libertarian-minded and pretty much in line with the leader."
Harrison said Harper is not a man who cultivates proteges, "but he has been my mentor in politics in lots of meaningful ways. He is a tremendous political role model."
While the youngest Liberal elected in the June election is 27-year-old Navdeep Bains, the Conservatives will welcome four new MPs born since Pierre Trudeau won a majority in the 1974 election. Rob Moore from Fundy Royal will join Harrison, Poilievre, Scheer and the now-veteran James Moore.
The consensus explanation for why so many ruddy-cheeked newcomers have thrown their MP3 players into the ring is the structure of the Conservative party, which does not have its own youth wing and has a fairly open nomination process, independent of the party establishment.
"Other parties are more top-down and seniority-based," Poilievre said. "[In other parties], the top prize in your universe is president of the youth association. That doesn't exist with [us] ... so we develop the confidence and audacity to seek office in our mid-20s."
Harrison, Poilievre and Scheer are not complete strangers to Ottawa. Harrison worked in Harper's office in the summer of 2001 and was elected to the national executive of the party two years ago. Poilievre worked for both Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney, while Scheer laboured in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition as an advisor to Harper. Yet, as if to emphasize their rawness, Harrison points out he was still studying for his law school final exams a month before the writ dropped for the June election. By his own admission, he didn't go to classes for the past two years and crammed for three weeks before his final exams in April, still emerging in the top 20% of his class. His MP's salary will now go toward paying down debts accumulated over nine years in university.
All three say they feel the additional weight of responsibility that comes with office. "I can't wake up on a Saturday now and not shave. I have to look my best and act my best at all times. I'm now a public figure in the community," Poilievre said. "It's changed my behaviour for the better because it's caused me to remind myself constantly that I represent 87,000 people in the Parliament of Canada and I have to conduct myself with dignity and professionalism."
It would be easy to snicker at such sentiments, but perhaps if more of Poilievre's new colleagues paid heed, we wouldn't be holding expensive public inquiries into sponsorship scandals. There was even something quite touching about his attempts at image manipulation: "We are all connoisseurs of Scotch, particularly Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Perhaps you could call us the Blue Labelers, which is the colour of our party."
Fortunately, their boldness is mixed with humility. Scheer, who beat NDP veteran Lorne Nystrom to win Regina Qu'Appelle, said the transformation from lowly staffer to having access to the members' restaurant has been stark.
"It is awe-inspiring. To step into that chamber and look around and imagine the people in Canadian history who have occupied that hall -- John A. Macdonald, Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker -- and to think I'll be participating in the same forum is awe-inspiring and humbling."
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