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By Louise Cockram

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. All photos provided by The Conversation from various sources.

Louise Cockram is an instructor of political science at Carleton University.

The Conservative Party is currently riding high in the polls with a 15-point lead over the Liberals. Political commentators credit this polling success to the popular appeal of Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.

Poilievre’s political messaging on the housing crisis and inflation, in particular, seems to be resonating with Canadians.

However, Poilievre’s career background is a double-edged sword. The same political background that makes Poilievre an effective parliamentarian may make him vulnerable to being characterized as out of touch by opposition parties and voters.

Career politicians

British academic Anthony King coined the term “career politician” in 1981, and it’s been part of the political lexicon ever since. According to King, career politicians are parliamentarians who devote their professional life to politics, entering politics in their 30s and leaving at retirement age.

This definition has since expanded to include MPs who were previously political staffers.

Poilievre closely matches King’s definition of a career politician. He was first elected to his Carleton riding in 2004 at the age of 25, not in his 30s. Prior to his election as an MP, Poilievre had worked almost exclusively in the political sphere (apart from a brief stint in corporate collections at Telus).

Poilievre interned in then-MP Jason Kenney’s office and worked as a political assistant to Stockwell Day, former leader of the right-wing Canadian Alliance.

Poilievre entered politics at an early age and stayed there. It’s safe to say he’s the textbook definition of a career politician.

The benefits of career politicians

Poilievre’s background has obvious advantages to his own career and the success of the Conservative Party. For one, his long career in politics, including as a political staffer, has given him a keen understanding of the legislative process.

According to my research on the orientation of new MPs, former political staffers have an advantage when it comes to understanding the job of an elected member.

In order to help their MP bosses, political staffers need a strong understanding of the legislative process and the standing orders of the House of Commons. Poilievre likely translated the procedural knowledge he gained as a political staffer into his work as an MP.

New MPs need to quickly get up to speed on procedure to begin work in the House. Poilievre’s constituents, along with the Conservative Party faithful, no doubt appreciate his mastery of the standing orders and his ability to hold his own in debates.

The problem with career politicians

The most common criticism of career politicians is that they are insulated from life outside of formal politics.

Poilievre has likely heard concerns and demands from Canadians inside and outside of his constituency as Conservative leader and MP for Ottawa’s Carleton riding. But listening to constituents’ problems is different from experiencing and understanding them.

Prof. Donald Savoie of the University of Moncton has suggested that:

“Career politicians … bring a narrow skill set to their governance. They excel at partisan politics …. But they lack the ability to test policy prescriptions against
experiences gained outside politics.”

The business of the House of Commons is often viewed as a political game that alienates both MPs and voters.

An example of this gamesmanship is shown in a report from the Samara Centre for Democracy. A former Canadian MP recalled their party voted against an opposition amendment to correct a proofreading mistake on a piece of legislation. The MP said their party did not want to give the opposition the “win,” even though the opposition amendment did not substantively alter the legislation.

These partisan games are par for the course in Ottawa. However, they don’t do anything to help the constituents MPs are elected to represent.

Out of touch

In the past, Poilievre has been labelled a partisan attack dog, primarily interested in dealing blows to the other parties.

His recent popularity appears to stem from talking about the issues Canadians care about. If Poilievre becomes prime minister, he’ll have a hard time maintaining popularity if he focuses primarily on partisanship.

Poilievre isn’t the only career politician in Canada. He’s also not the only federal leader vulnerable to accusations of being “out of touch.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau grew up in politics as the son of Pierre Trudeau, and he’s often been criticized for being out of step with the average Canadian.

The fact that both Trudeau and Poilievre can be described as out of touch raises broader questions about representation in Canada.
Can a politician with a relatively narrow life experience represent the diverse needs of Canadians?

When it comes to Poilievre, this remains to be seen — if elected prime minister, he may use his experience as a career politician to advocate for issues important to Canadians, or he may choose to focus on partisan games in Ottawa.

Carleton Newsroom

The Conversation

Sunday, October 1, 2023 in
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