The media’s gawking at the young age of some rookie New Democrat MPs probably says more about the media than it does about the newly elected politicians.
The MPs themselves run the gamut, from Pierre-Luc Dusseault, a 19-year-old representing Sherbrooke, to Ruth Ellen Brosseau, a 27-year-old single mom now representing Berthier-Maskinongé.
The media have treated them like a carnival freak show. They’re not. The guffaws betray some pretty shallow assumptions about young people. Dusseault and Brosseau — plus 20-year-olds Matthew Dubé, Charmain Borg and a handful of others — have, so far, not been treated fairly.
But such is politics.
The class of 2011 will be the laughing stock of the House of Commons — or they could be the voice of a generation. If they let the media and their opponents do the framing, the former is certainly more likely.
To avoid this, the NDP can turn the supposed weakness into a strength, if it is interested in doing so. After all, it has one of the biggest youth caucuses in history. It’s the party best positioned to speak to the needs of our youth. But the party must commit to developing these young politicians, or else it will go down in history as a joke, a one-liner told about the 41st Parliament for years to come. It’s an uphill battle, there’s no doubt about it.
They’re probably getting advice from everyone today, but here are my two cents.
One: don’t give interviews — yet. Okay, it appears too late, but more stories about Dusseault’s planned summer job at a golf course aren’t going to help things. Neither are stories about MPs who’ve never been to the ridings they represent. Once they’ve toured their ridings and can speak about the needs of their constituents, then they’re ready for interviews.
Two: for those without facility in French, sign up for language training. ASAP. At the same time, they’ll need to hire local, francophone constituency assistants to handle requests from the riding and provide advice. Again, ASAP.
Three: go shopping. For the men, the risk is looking like they borrowed their fathers’ suits. To combat that, they’ll need to order a couple of tailored suits and some tapered dress shirts. For the women, the risk is failing to appear age-appropriate. So, they’ll need pant suits, blouses and five pairs of flats each. Stick to grey, black, beige and other muted tones. Limit bright colours to blouses and ties. The media will want to comment on your clothes; don’t give them anything to talk about.
Four: make connections. They’ll need to establish a youth caucus, then get to know their fellow MPs. At the same time, they’ll want to find a veteran MP to be their mentor.
Five: begin drafting a modest private member’s bill that’s likely to garner multi-party support, either on a youth issue or something local that benefits Quebeckers. The perception is that these young MPs are seat fillers. They’ll need to combat that. To that end, they’ll probably want to begin planning speaking engagements for 2012. Not for 2011, mind you. But their reputations will benefit from a small campus tour in the spring, perhaps with their fellow young MPs, that tries to engage university students.
The stakes are high for these MPs, and how they behave over the next few months will dog them for the rest of their lives. Expectations are low, and there is every opportunity for them to beat expectations. They have the potential to be the next generation of leaders, but only if they can navigate the next few months. I wish them luck.