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Bruce Anderson.

Bruce Anderson.

Bruce Anderson

In this day and age, what kind of person runs for political office? Add to ...

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

With less than a year before the next federal election, parties are gearing up and holding nomination meetings. One sign of a party’s good health is a spate of stories about heated contests to become official candidates.

Many of these stories feature allegations of shenanigans and favouritism, and can lead to embarrassment for parties as well as bruised feelings among internal factions. There are plenty of unexpected outcomes – including defeats of people that you might think would be ideal candidates by others who have stronger networks or local root systems or better campaign organization.

But if the stories of nomination fights are pain points for party headquarters they also mean that there are people who are vigourously interested in running for public office. That’s a good thing.

Between the incumbents not running again and new ridings on the electoral map there will be dozens of new faces in the next House of Commons. What do we know about people who take the plunge and try to win an election?

First, they are a minority, but not a miniscule one. In a room filled with a random 1,000 Canadians, our survey data suggests that there are 21 per cent who might consider running for some public office at some point in their lives.

One might wish that number to be higher, but 21 per cent is a pretty large pool of people, millions in fact, who are open to the idea of this kind of public service. This despite the numerous reasons why the work of a candidate and the life of a Member of Parliament isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries.

The good folks at Samara have interviewed former MPs over several years, and the stories they have been told can be dispiriting. The pressures to conform to party doctrine, or habits, or to bend to the will of leaders. The demands on time and the strain it puts on family life. The disruption of a normal career path.

But to my eyes, all of those strains pale against what has become an even bigger challenge.

Over decades, many who enter politics have occasionally felt worn down by a rising tide of disrespect – even ridicule. I’m not trying to excuse poor performance or unethical behavior – my point is that the balance of good things we hear about the work, the work ethic and the integrity of our politicians relative to the bad stories is unhealthy. Bad for the politicians, but also for voters too.

In my experience, many of those who today would never consider a run for office are thinking: “Why would I subject myself to the abuse?”

One day you are a hard working member of your community, with a network of friends and people who believe in your virtues. Get elected and you can find yourself instantly surrounded by vague suspicions. Suspicion that you are arrogant, self absorbed, indifferent to suffering, closed minded, in it for all the wrong reasons, spineless, unimaginative, and motivated by a taste for the finer things in life. Today, 41 per cent in a poll say they can name their MP, and only 17 per cent say unequivocally yes, when asked if that MP deserves to be re-elected.

By its nature, news coverage about politics will often focus on the weakest performers, the most foolish mistakes, and imply that life in Ottawa is the Life of Reilly.

The truth about life in politics is different. It’s certainly not for the indolent or faint of heart. It’s physically punishing and emotionally draining. For some, the financial rewards are considerable, while for others, financial sacrifice is part of the deal. On the whole, I’ve met few who pursue a career in politics for the money.

When I first set foot in the House of Commons in the late 1970s, it seemed dominated by male lawyers and businessmen. Today, happily, it’s a lot more diverse. But just as was the case then, there are plenty of excellent MPs for every poor one we hear about.

As we dive into a year that will be all about political combat, I’m going to regularly remind myself that as a society we need good people to want to stand for office – and that comment and criticism should bear that in mind, not make matters worse.

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