OTTAWA — Everyone wants to attract young people to our decrepit and discredited political arena — indeed, many look to generational change for a fresh start — but we shouldn’t confuse "young" with "new."
The last thing our politics — and our planet — needs is better hair and the same old ideas.
This isn’t just a dig at Justin Trudeau, who will be 41 on Christmas Day — but let’s start there. The Liberal leadership hopeful’s much-anticipated launch speech last week was disappointingly banal. He ran through the familiar Liberal checklist: a nod to strength in diversity, the Charter of Rights, Quebec’s central role, First Nations poverty, and so on.
Overall, the speech contained not one fresh idea, or memorable quote, although the former high school drama teacher strove mightily to impart depth, quoting his father, who was quoting Paul to the Corinthians, about putting away "childish things."
Trudeau might start by retiring the outdated contention that the NDP "blame the successful." Thomas Mulcair? No, the agile and whip-smart NDP leader wants to be successful. He is the least plausible class warrior since, well, since Jack Layton.
Then there is Trudeau’s urgent concern for "the middle class," a constituency that has been the focus of Stephen Harper’s relentless attentions for years. How radical a cause is that? What does it mean that "the middle class makes this country great"?
The middle class is a sprawling, diverse and somewhat nervous constituency in an era of public service job cuts, economic slowdown, sluggish investments and uncertain retirement prospects.
But it hard to imagine Trudeau’s 150,000 Twitter followers, his youth army, taking to the barricades in defence of a previous generation’s privilege. A campaign against youth unemployment, growing income inequality, soaring education costs, environmental degradation, or poverty would appeal to youthful idealism. But "Save the Family Cottage"? "Defend the Right to a Second Car"? What is he talking about?
You can almost hear the old guys whispering in his ear: the middle class is a big, big constituency! Lots of votes! Trudeau’s bold new pitch looks more like cynical political positioning, and hackneyed positioning at that. Barack Obama beat him to it: "America does best when the middle class does best," the president intoned during debates last week.
Trudeau is, undeniably, personable, well-intentioned, attractive and connected. He can easily captivate a curious crowd with his impassioned stump speech. But new ideas? You’ll hear more fresh thinking standing in a coffee line with Green party leader Elizabeth May, 58, for 15 minutes.
Just down the Commons aisle from Trudeau sit 18 neophyte New Democrat MPs, all 30 and under — indeed, a handful still in their early 20s. They arrived on a gust of enthusiasm after the last election, but so far haven’t made much discernible difference in how politics, or the House, works.
To be fair, many were stunned to be elected in the first place and they face a steep learning curve. Political life can be a minefield for the ill-prepared, so a little humility and caution are well-advised.
Still, it is discouraging to see these potentially interesting new recruits dutifully reciting the typically tendentious "questions" written for them, applauding on cue, and following their more experienced mentors around like toddlers on a rope line.
Just as jail is "crime school" for young offenders, the Commons is increasingly an academy dedicated to turning independent-minded idealists into predictable partisans.
No matter the party, the most compliant are promoted; the most aggressive get the media profile. You need look no farther than the Conservative front bench.
The most ardent practitioners of off-putting, old-school politics — lots of volume, fake outrage, theatrical evasions — and the most unrelenting evangelists for hoary economic, or social, prescriptions are relatively young. Jason Kenney is 44; John Baird is 43; Pierre Poilievre, perpetually scripted and prematurely boring, is 33.
What young politicians do bring, although not uniquely, is energy and stamina — and Trudeau will need that as he continues his relentless travelling on behalf of the Liberal party.
But stamina and glamour aren’t enough. Trudeau needs content and experience. He needs more than a fashionable concern for the environment; he needs to unambiguously oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline and offer a realistic alternative.
If he is serious about changing the tone of politics, he needs to find a new way of responding to the venomous attacks coming his way. (Stéphane Dion will remind him of the dangers of turning the other cheek.)
The political old guard can be complacent and arrogant, of course — they, after all, ruined the brand. But we should be wary of misty-eyed romanticism about a new generation.
Public life isn’t going to improve if young politicians continue to embrace the narrow range of topics, timid policy prescriptions and poisonous rhetoric of their elders. That isn’t change, no matter how contemporary the wrapping.
» Susan Riley is a national affairs columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. She can be reached at: email@example.com
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 11, 2012