More than a ‘name on the ballot’: why politics, why now?

Joanne in Oxford

Joanne in Oxford (Photo: Courtney Wittekind)

Last week, I launched a campaign to contest the Canadian federal nomination for the New Democratic Party in my hometown riding of Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan. Canada is preparing for a federal election in October, and after almost 10 years of Conservative rule our multi-party political system is primed for an unpredictable, exciting election in the fall.

As a student in the 2014 MPP cohort, I often imagined my future in public service, political research/analysis or law. Our coursework has emphasized the importance of evidence, evaluation, strategy and innovation in policymaking, and these are priorities that are often lost in the frenetic nature of election cycles and the political process. Many members of my cohort remain interested and engaged in political life in their respective home countries, but few have opted for explicitly partisan career paths upon graduating.

So, why is politics my playing field of choice? And, particularly as one of the youngest members of our cohort, why now?

Political campaigns can sometimes appear person-centred, self-serving or opportunistic – a ‘name on the ballot’ or being in the right place at the right time. Humility and political life aren’t always compatible. Political candidates sometimes also fixate on what I describe as ‘identity symbolism’, in which they attribute significant meaning to their candidacy as, perhaps, a young person, a woman or a member of a minority group.

Diverse representation in political systems is critical, but person-centred or symbolic campaigns can sometimes fall short if they are not also issue-driven. Before submitting my nomination paperwork, I reflected deeply on whether this opportunity was the ideal means for my desired end – policy change on several key issues that I have focused on for my much of my life. I have previously worked in policy think-tanks, advocacy organisations and the public service, discovering that in each the process of policy change can be exceptionally slow and detached.

After much reflection, I decided that politics was the best playing field to create meaningful policy change. To run an issue-driven campaign is to capture your own political imagination, and that of your community. For years, my political imagination has been focused on what Canada could look like with a national dementia strategy, universal childcare, a strategy to address rising numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, sustainable pension reform and a responsible approach to Alberta’s oil sands.

The Blavatnik School of Government has prepared me well to articulate these complex issues clearly and compellingly, and with sound evidence. In a recent letter to the constituents in my riding, I describe how seeking my party’s nomination is particularly motivated by my frustration navigating Canada’s long-term care system after my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. When I decided to discuss and politicize such a personal part of my family life, developing an issues-driven campaign came easily.

Young women still remain somewhat unicorn-like in political life, as Scotland’s Mhairi Black and Quebec’s three young women ‘rookie NDP MPs’ are often portrayed as ‘accidental politicians’. How would political life change if the participation of young women was not inherently newsworthy? What if we supported young women in campaigning and running with intention, believing that their experiences and perspectives can position them as legitimate candidates? My campaign is not intended to be a soapbox for young women’s participation, but it is a productive opportunity to confront voters’ entrenched attitudes and behaviours. Homogeneity in our political system – particularly when mid-career, older white men usually dictate the rules of the game – benefits no one.

Regardless of the outcome of my campaign or Canada’s fall election, preparing my first political nomination bid has been an education I could never receive in the classroom. While there are many ways to contribute to the Blavatnik School of Government’s mission of a world better led, better served and better governed, mine happens to be in political life – and sooner rather than later.

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