I have always been critical of the assumption (and it is an assumption) that the political system excludes young people; that politicians don’t listen to young people or care what they think, and as a result young people are tuning out of Canadian politics. As anyone who began volunteering on political campaigns at a young age will tell you – that’s just bollocks.
I was fourteen for my first election. It was the 1997 federal election and I was campaigning for Gordon Earl in Nova Scotia. Since then, during any campaign I volunteered for (no matter what the party!), the campaign staff would all but nail my novice feet to the floor. It’s for this reason, among others, that so many young people end up holding senior positions with politicians at all levels of government. Oddly enough, I think there’s a higher tolerance for the learning curve on the political side and for this reason it’s a great place to start working early. You will be given serious responsibilities early on. In many other places of work, the public and corporate sectors included, you often spend years and years toiling in front of copiers and paper shredders before you even come close to advising the big decision-makers. Not so in politics. For young people, it’s a great opportunity. So, start early and here’s some fatherly advice:
Volunteer for everything. There’s more to campaigns than just licking envelopes. Get your feet wet pounding in signs, knocking on doors and even making the dreaded fundraising phone calls. Ask someone at the campaign office if you can shadow them for a day and see what it’s like to be a phone bank or canvass coordinator. These aren’t just great campaign experiences, they’re great leadership experiences.
A second set of eyes will save your hide. Every staffer has done it, and it sucks. You send something out to the press or as a mass mailing and realize you’ve spelled the leader’s name wrong, screwed up the time of an event or inadvertently inserted a snide remark not meant for public consumption. Your throat goes dry. ALWAYS ask someone to check over your work. You’re not writing a novel, it’s probably not more than one page, so just ask someone to skim your release.
Get to know the staff. Getting to know campaign staff is equally as important as getting to know the candidates. As hard as it is to admit, like all political geeks, when you met your first politician you were stars-struck. It was like a normal teen meeting their pop idol. Don’t be fooled by the glow, they are as human as you and I and you’ll learn just as much chatting with their regular office staff as you will from them. In fact, you’ll get a better idea of how things operate and how politics really works.
Finally, stay away from the smokers! Bay St. is probably the only other place in Canada with a higher concentration of young smokers than the Canadian political scene. Who starts smoking when they’re 23? This guy. Long hours, late nights and lots of beer are gateway drugs for cigarettes. So be careful!
Finally, don’t be discouraged if you lose your first campaign. It’s like your first break-up – it’s always the worst one. Get back in the saddle and you’ll get your first win before you know it.