Thursday, July 9, 2009

How To Build a Better Candidate

I've found myself thinking a great deal lately about the quality of our MPs and candidates, and what sorts of people I would like representing me and making decisions on my behalf.

Part of this reflection came from listening to Gerard Kennedy speak at our fundraiser last month. I've admired Kennedy ever since he was the outspoken director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, and it got me thinking about how much that background has informed his views and his priorities as a politician. It also made me wish we had more MPs with a background like that, which in turn led me to investigate just how many of them actually did.

I decided to go through the list of MPs on the Parliamentary website and find out what they've done besides working as MPs. The little profile they give is hardly detailed, but it does list previous occupations and electoral history. I wasn't going to go through all of them, so I just did the 100+ from Ontario since that's my region, and the three major parties are all well represented here (keep in mind that most MPs have multiple jobs in their background, so percentages are going to add up to more than 100%).

What I found was interesting, but not really surprising. To start, nearly half - 47% - of our Ontario MPs come from the corporate world. Among Conservatives its 53%, but even the NDP caucus has more than 1/3 of their members with a corporate background. When I compare that to the number of people I personally know who are corporate execs, managers or directors, I can't help but think that this is a grotesque over-representation.

The next most common profession or background at just under 30% was municipal politician, which I consider to be a good thing. In general, town councillors, reeves and mayors are less rabidly partisan, more practical, and more cognisant of the effect of their decisions on real people. The NDP have the most municipal politicians on their roster, followed by the Conservatives and lastly the Liberals.

Then come the lawyers and the teachers, tied at 17%. The Liberals have the most lawyers (24%) and the same percent with an education background. The NDP have the most teachers (29%). Teachers and professors are good. Lawyers are ok, although there are vastly different kinds of law and a constitutional lawyer, a criminal lawyer and a corporate attorney are going to have very different perspectives.

My favourites, the social workers, social activists and the dreaded "community organizers" only account for about 10% overall, with the vast majority being NDP members. I like these people as politicians because like municipal politicians, they have the needed organizational and administrative skills without ever losing sight of the fact that they are working for the benefit of people.

We need more of these people in the Liberal Party, and in politics in general.

Getting back to those corporate people. I've tried to distinguish wherever possible between corporate 'business people' and people who actually run a business (usually listed as entrepreneurs) because I consider them to have completely different mindsets. I'm a business person. I started a numbered corporation and opened my first business when I was eighteen. I've managed everything from bookstores to print shops. I've run the same mail-order crafts business for over 20 years. My website is as old as eBay.

I've never made a great deal of money with my current business, but I consider it to be successful because a) it let me be home with my son when he was little, b) I get to do something I love and can take pride in, and c) people around the world buy my wares and write me back to tell me how much they appreciate what I've made for them.

If I were a corporate executive, I'd be a total failure. If I were a corporate manager, I'd be outsourcing my inefficient one-person crafts workshop to one of the dozen or so companies from India who email me every month offering to duplicate my work for pennies a piece.

Corporations have their place I suppose, but here's the thing: you CANNOT run a government like a corporation. You just can't. You can sort of run it like a business because real businesses provide tangible goods and services, and frequently measure success by something other than pure profit.

Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders. Period. They don't have to care about the people they employ or the communities they set up shop in or the products they produce, except to the extent that these considerations might impact their quarterly statement.

Governments are in many ways the exact opposite of corporations because their primary purpose is to provide services and other tangible benefits to the public. They accomplish this using the taxpayers' own money and so are obligated not to waste it or spend it frivolously, but it's understood that any given government program or service is not necessarily going to be 'profitable'. Many are distinctly unprofitable and inefficient by corporate standards - but they are also carefully regulated and made accessible to all according to their need. The measure of their success is public benefit, not profit.

A corporate manager would look at Canada Post and ask why they charge the same minuscule amount to send a letter across the street or across the country. They would ask why post offices or RCMP stations or even roads exist in remote communities when centralization is so much more efficient. They would question the wisdom of hiring Canadians to print or process government forms - or make those little Canadian flags - when such work could be done in Mexico or India far more cheaply. They would question why the government is running operations like the LCBO or AECL at all when they would be so much more profitable being run by the private sector.

The fact that such questions are, in fact, being raised indicates to me that there are far too many people with a corporate mindset running our government.

So what would I look for in a political candidate? I'd look for someone who's been in the trenches. Someone with a lot of volunteer hours, or experience working for a charity or an NGO. Someone who has run their own business, or has a real job producing something, creating something, or providing a useful service. Someone who has been involved politically on a practical level, served on planning committees or riding boards or administered local programs. Someone with enough education and life experience to see the bigger picture and make informed decisions. Someone who has demonstrated a real desire to do good in their community and has actually done something about it.

These are the kinds of people we should be actively recruiting as candidates and even public servants. Not just for the Liberal Party, but in general.

What I do NOT want to see is more CEOs, CFOs, corporate managers, or people who seem to do nothing but sit on boards of directors. I'm sure they're very nice people and have skills to offer, but we already have plenty of people like that running the country, thank you very much.


  1. wow, I really enjoyed reading that.
    good work and I totally agree with you :)

  2. Great post Jennifer!
    I too have been saying that the quality (and independent thinking) of our Mps is of prime importance, and whilst they must have the organizational tools needed to deal with the multitude of issues, these skills are not exclusive to the corporate world. They must indeed not loose track that Government is NOT the corporate world but they are working “for the people” despite some in the political world who seem to think otherwise. With you permission I will use extensive extracts from this post for a future article at and I invite you and your readers to join us there.