Part 1: So, you want to work in politics?

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Participation Thursday, March 06, 2014 View Count = 25432

Part 1: So, you want to work in politics?

After we published our most recent report By Invitation Only: Canadians Perceptions of Political Parties, we heard from many party members. Some heartily agreed with our findings, while others thought we might have missed something. This week, we were happy to host two very different responses from readers who are both party members (read the first here and the second here).

Today we're excited to keep this conversation going with a response from Adam Goldenberg, member of the Liberal Party and former speechwriter for former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. This is part one of a presentation Adam gave at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Look for the second part next week.

Even if youve never volunteered on a political campaign; and even if you never got involved in student government; and even if you just have no idea what you want to do after you graduate, you should consider working in politics.

ll be overworked, underpaid, often under-appreciated, and dismissed as just a partisan by know-it-alls who think that politics is something you learn in a seminar. Still, youll be serving your country, youll form life-long friendships, and youll have an incredible amount of fun.

Between 2008 and 2011, I put off law school to work as a political staffer in British Columbia, on Parliament Hill, and at Queen
s Park in Toronto. It was and is the best decision Ive ever made. I cant promise that youll have the same experience as I didyou can read about it herebut here are five things that you can do to maximize your chances:

1. Be good.
Its true that, for a lot of people, getting a job in politics begins with the question whom do you know?A staffers number-one job is discretionto earn and keep the trust of her colleagues and of the elected officials whom she serves. The relationships between government ministers and their officials are protected by Cabinet confidentiality, but the principle is the same for any backbench MP or local candidate and her staff: if they cant trust you, they can’t employ you. For a political newcomer, whom do you know?is shorthand for trustworthiness; if so-and-so says that I can trust you and that youre one of us,then Im more likely to give you a chance than if youre a complete stranger with a strong CV. So, if you want to work in politics, the first steps are to pick a team, get involvedmore on what get involvedmeans in a momentand then meet as many people as possible. You can never predict which relationships will eventually be important to your career, and so the best approach is to make and keep as many friends as possible.

But, whatever you do,
dont make the mistake of getting to know people just so that you can usethem later; anyone whos worked in politics for more than fifteen minutes begins to develop a nose for manure, and so the only friendships that pay off are the ones that are both real and reciprocal. If you dont truly like the people around youif you cant see them becoming your closest friendsthen you probably wont enjoy working in politics, anyway. Its a people business, after all.

Michael Ignatieff holds a meeting on the Liberal campaign plane during the 2011 election. That’s me in the top right corner. (Photo credit: Georges Alexandar)

I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s true that, if you want a job in politics, you’ll be probably need folks to vouch for you. But, if you just want to jump into the political process for the first time, then you actually dont need to know a soul to get started. Find out which riding you live in and look up the email address of your party’s youth wing or local riding association. Send them an email; chances are, they’ll write back, excited to have an extra set of hands on deck. Or, find a campaign that you believe in, and look for a tab on its website that says something like volunteeror get involvedor even just contact us.Politics runs on volunteers (see #2, below) and so an eagerness to help is usually the only credentialand internet access the only connectionyoull need.

Once you
re in the door, political work quickly becomes deliciously meritocratic. If youre good, youll get to do good work. Hard workreally, really hard workis rewarded. I made it through four years of university without pulling a single all-nighter, then pulled four in my first six weeks as a campaign worker. Even if you feel like your talents arent always being used to the fullest you should try never to say no.You may be asked to stuff envelopes or buy donuts or make phone calls or stage a protest or make a YouTube video or show up at an opponents rally with a camcorder. Do it, and do it well, and youll be noticed.

When I first reached out to Michael Ignatieff
s Liberal leadership campaign and asked for work I got an email back that I only came to understand much later: There are never any jobs in politics, I was told, but there are never enough good people to fill them. Be good, and work hard, and you might just get the gig you thought you could only dream of. I did.

Left: Working on the Liberal Express bus tour—with Young Liberals who appear to be having much more fun—during the summer of 2010. (Photo credit: Georges Alexandar) Right: Staffing Michael Ignatieff and then-Liberal ca
ndidate (now MP) Kevin Lamoureux during the 2010 Winnipeg North by-election. (Photo credit: Kevin Lamoureux campaign)

2. Be cheap. In politics, budgets are always stretched, whether in an MPs office or on an election campaign. Be prepared to work for free. My first job in politics was as a communications go-fer in the Liberal Partys campaign headquarters in Vancouver during the 2008 federal election. I signed up as a volunteer, and moved back in with my parents. My lack of a paycheque notwithstanding, I worked harder than I ever had in my life.

Political jobs are often incredibly cool
or sound that way, anyway. Lots of smart people want them. Far fewer can afford to take them. Make no mistake; this isnt a good thing. We shouldnt expect our political system to survive on unpaid labour, and we shouldnt have to exclude good people who cant afford to work for free because they dont have parents in a big city who can feed and house them, or because they have a family and a mortgage and student loans to worry about. But, until we increase our legislators office budgets, or restore public funding for our political parties, or provide student loan forgiveness for young people who work in politics, well continue to give those who can afford to work for little or no pay a major advantage in political hiring.

So, if you can afford to work for cheap, then you probably will—at least at first. If you’re young, without dependant family members or significant debt obligations, then this works to your advantage; you’ll be in a position to undercut other wannabe staffers who can’t afford to take the pay cut that politics usually requires. There’s no shame in starting at the bottom of the salary scale, or even below it. You’ll quickly find that an astonishing number of other staffers began their political careers as volunteers. I did.

Adam Goldenberg is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, where he is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow. He was Michael Ignatieff’s speechwriter from 2009 to 2011, and subsequently served as a senior aide in the Government of Ontario. He writes frequently about politics and the law, and is a contributor to
 CBC News: The National. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamgoldenberg.

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