The 2021 federal election campaign offers Canadian political parties an important opportunity to renew the membership of a central group of legislative elites: those people who stand as candidates for election. This group of people is key because from among the ranks of the newly elected candidates, future party leaders emerge and begin their training in the ways of the House of Commons. Now, more than ever, parties often want to recruit so-called “star” candidates – professionally successful, well-regarded political outsiders – to join their new teams of candidates.
Why do parties actively recruit star candidates from outside politics? All parties face a perennial challenge in recruiting capable new candidates to carry the party banner, because the existing pool of potential candidates diminishes constantly owing to illness, retirement, scandal and death. While many candidates for office are party stalwarts who have a longstanding involvement in local partisan activities, some recruits are politically inexperienced. Usually these inexperienced outsiders have built fine reputations in their professional careers, with accomplishments in areas such as law, banking, scientific research, athletic excellence or the arts. Star candidates often make important contributions to our democratic process. They bring new ideas, broad experience and fresh perspectives into the political “bubble” of Ottawa and can revitalize tired party leadership groups.
Star recruits in this election include filmmaker and activist Avi Lewis, who is running for the NDP in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country; broadcaster Frank Cavallaro, who is running for the Conservatives in Mount Royal; Phil De Luna, a research scientist and a cleantech innovator who is representing the Green Party in Toronto-St. Paul’s; and Gathering Place executive director Joanne Thompson, who is contesting the St. John’s East riding for the Liberals.
The star candidate recruitment track in federal politics is clearly evident when we consider the political paths of some past prime ministers. Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was one of the “three wise men” from Quebec who were recruited to run in the 1965 election by then-Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson. In her autobiography, Kim Campbell recounts that when she was a young law professor in British Columbia who was interested in politics, she was advised to refrain from working in the political trenches and to instead devote her energies to building an admirable legal career. She followed this option and was eventually recruited by B.C.’s Social Credit Party as a star. She decided to run for Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives in the 1988 election. Five years later, Campbell was chosen to lead the party and was sworn in as Canada’s first female prime minister.
While star recruits usually have to work their way up the ladder once they are elected to the Commons, sometimes they receive red carpet treatment, ascending to coveted cabinet positions easily and bypassing the usual route to such power. For example, well-known businessman Bill Morneau joined Justin Trudeau’s team in the 2015 election and was immediately appointed minister of finance when the Liberals took office, the top job in the maiden cabinet, despite the fact that Trudeau had several veteran MPs available.
Star candidate recruitment is not without its risks. Some new recruits are prone to scandal and can turn into liabilities for the party leadership. Morneau was the subject of investigations by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner in 2017 and 2018. He was also criticized for not holding some assets in a blind trust, and his political career ended abruptly when he announced in August 2020 during the WE Charity scandal that he was stepping down.
Another risk in recruiting capable people from outside party politics concerns loyalty, which is the coin of the political realm. On the one hand, star recruits can prove very popular with voters who value independence and believe excessive party discipline undermines representative government. On the other, because they are connected to the party by a weaker bond than those that bind loyal partisans, stars are sometimes quicker to bolt when the going gets tough, when party discipline becomes too onerous, or when better opportunities appear on the horizon.
The list of rookie MPs who have crossed the floor of the Commons to sit with other parties early in their careers includes star recruits such as businesswoman Belinda Stronach, who left the Conservatives to join the Liberals, and more recently Jenica Atwin, who left the Green Party to sit with the Liberals.
Clearly the inexperience that marks star candidates can undercut their political careers. Despite this and other risks, there are several good reasons motivating parties to search out stars. First, successful people usually have the diligent work ethic and excellent social skills that are valuable in politics. The career of the modern politician is a demanding one, and many star candidates are highly sought after because they have a track record of succeeding in demanding occupations.
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Second, some voters distrust the party machines and the candidates they produce. The opportunity to support someone who has not been “tainted” by a long period working in party politics can be very appealing. Stars have some capacity to gain votes from disaffected voters, and this potential could matter in close races.
Third, star candidates send a message that parties are capable of recognizing talent and recruiting good people into public service. This can be a reassuring signal for the Liberal and Conservative parties, in particular, to send. Historically they have dominated control of the federal government for relatively long periods, and so over time their candidate pools can become thin and stale.
In addition, the rise of social media has probably emphasized the value of outsider candidates with celebrity status and extensive personal networks. Name recognition remains a potent political resource, and well-known party candidates carry a large advantage over unknown aspirants.
Finally, political parties can strategically recruit certain candidates whose profile and accomplishments help to communicate the party’s brand. As Alex Marland notes in his award-winning study Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, today’s parties emphasize the importance of consistent campaign messaging. By lending their reputations on particular issues, star recruits can help to solidify a party’s branding message.
For example, in 2015 the Liberals recruited Jonathan Wilkinson, a reputable constitutional negotiator and businessperson with a deep knowledge of green technology companies. His presence served to help underscore the Liberal Party’s policy platform commitments on climate change and environmental protection. Wilkinson won his North Vancouver riding handily, and he was appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of environment and climate change in Trudeau’s first cabinet. After serving briefly as the minister of fisheries, in 2019 Wilkinson was appointed minister of environment and climate change.
In the 2021 election all the major parties have once again actively recruited some star outsiders to contest seats despite some of the risks and difficulties that sometimes result from such candidacies. Overall, while they are new to formal politics, this sort of representative helps to enrich, rejuvenate and diversify the pool of elected political elites.
This article is part of the How can we improve the elections process special feature.