With the Liberal leadership race over, Canadians are reflecting on the trend of younger people seeking high office. Let’s have a closer look at the issue of age in politics.
Observe a young man, never having run a significant business, rather spending most of his life in academe, either studying or teaching, and surrounded by the old guard of a major Canadian political party. He was a member of his high school’s Young Liberals club. At the tender age of 34 he is elected to Parliament, never having previously served in elected office, not city councillor nor school board trustee. A rising political star, he is made his party’s leader while only 42 and fresh off his 45th birthday has the temerity to seek the highest office in the land.
He didn’t win, but less than 2 years later, on his second try, he did, becoming Right Honourable Prime Minister at the still relatively young age of 46.
Hold on, Justin Trudeau hasn’t been elected Prime Minister, what am I on about, you ask? Well, the bio above is actually that of Stephen Harper. Yet it strikingly parallels that of Mr. Trudeau, though Justin didn’t enter the Commons until he was 36 (two years older than Harper), became party leader at 41 and will be first running for PM when he’s almost 44 (in both cases a mere year younger than Stephen at that stage).
Harper cut his political teeth working with Deb Gray, Preston Manning, and Tom Flanagan, advising Reform and Alliance parties. Trudeau, surrounded by MPs and world leaders from birth, later chaired the Liberal task force on youth renewal. While out of politics, Justin chaired Katimavik, bringing Canadians together from coast to coast; Harper led the National Citizen’s Coalition, bringing some Canadians together to oppose the interests of some others.
As private citizens, both have been active in national causes and criticized government in ways that have later been highlighted as controversial. For a charity gala, Trudeau removed his shirt; at another gala, Harper sang of getting high with the help of his friends. What of it?
The city I live in has elected councillors at the tender young ages of 21 and 22 with little prior life experience who have nevertheless gone on to re-election with record-setting support. We elected an MP at age 27 who has likewise seen popular re-election with solid majorities. I really don’t see the point of the argument that someone is “too young” to lead. After all, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte were both emperors by their own hand at 30 (not that I’m endorsing that leadership style today). No Prime Minister governs alone (well, not before Stephen Harper, anyway); they always have the support of other MPs and expert advisors. My own party’s leader has demonstrated wisdom and leadership since her teenage years. So how about we stop obsessing over youth or supposed inexperience and instead focus on the policies each party leader offers?
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.