How'd you get that job? Samara talks to Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament Michelle Rempel

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How'd You Get That Job? Tuesday, March 18, 2014 View Count = 4147

How'd you get that job? Samara talks to Cabinet Minister and Member of Parliament Michelle Rempel

The Honourable Michelle Rempel was elected as the Member of  Parliament for the riding of Calgary Centre-North in 2011. In 2013 she  was appointed as the Minister of State for Western Economic  Diversification, making her the youngest female appointed to Cabinet  in Canadian history. Previously, Ms. Rempel served as Parliamentary  Secretary to the Minister of the Environment. In November 2012  Maclean’s Magazine named her as their Parliamentarian of the Year. 

What inspired you to get involved in politics?

I think one of the great things about Canada is that our political system is designed in a way that allows anybody from any background to get involved and to make a significant difference. The reason I say that is because when you look at other systems — look at the American system, for example, where they spent 6 billion dollars on their last presidential campaign which is so much higher than what we spend in Canada — if you look at how we’ve equalized the playing field in terms of campaign financing and if you look at our party system where anyone can buy a membership and get involved in policy development, you realize it is so accessible. All that is to say, why did I get involved? Because I can. That’s something that is very unique for a young woman when you look globally. Whenever I talk to students in schools I always try and leave them with a sense that public office is a way to give back to your community. I know that sounds kind of glib but it’s not. Oftentimes people think, how can I give back to my community? How can I be a leader? How can I start to make change? The first thing you think is, I’m going to volunteer for a nonprofit or give some time to whoever. But really, when you get involved in the political process you have a direct influence on policy and on the way in which your community is shaped. I really don’t think there is any better way for someone to have an impact on their community. 

Did you always know that you would get involved in politics?

Decidedly not. I grew up in Winnipeg, which is a great city to grow up in, and when I moved to Calgary in 2003 I thought, ok I need to build a life for myself here. I’d been peripherally involved in campaigns but I was going to school and working full–time. When I came to Calgary they were mounting an election campaign and I thought I would give some time just to meet people. I kind of just caught the bug and I had the benefit of working with [The Honourable] Diane Ablonczy’s team who totally embraced my interests and nurtured me. I guess my interest in political activism grew quite rapidly. As I progressed I became her riding association president, and then I was encouraged to run for the party’s national policy committee. I was co-chairing the national policy-development committee at 28 and it was this “aha moment” where I recognized that I could make a difference. So then I started spending every ounce of time running campaigns, learning about campaigns, because you could really see the outcome of your participation: I elected this person, I pushed this policy forward. When Minister Prentice retired in 2010 even though I had that background, it was still a moment of “oh-my-goodness” because I had a choice to make. Entering public service was of course a possibility and I had a team, but until I was faced with that opportunity my mind wasn’t totally set on it. It’s been a very interesting journey, that’s for sure. 

You’ve already talked about this a bit, but how exactly did you become a Cabinet Minister/MP? What path brought you to this specific role?

First of all, I want to say to anyone wanting to run for office - know your party system inside and out. I mean, parties have resources to train candidates, to develop and mentor strong activists. For me it was preparation meeting opportunity. When a seat opened up in Calgary I had my team, I knew what it was going to take to win that nomination, and I was successful because of that. That is part of that path to becoming elected, and especially in a seat that’s a traditional “safe seat” for a party. You have to do the work ahead of time to win that nomination. 

In terms of the Cabinet portfolio, hard work pays off. I know that the Prime Minister looks for competency and hard work, and I have really appreciated and thrived under that merit-based system. For me, the path to becoming a Cabinet Minister was about blooming where you were planted. I had the Parliamentary Secretary role and I worked extremely hard to make sure I was managing my committee responsibility with excellence. As the lead government member on the Environment Committee I did a lot of work learning to communicate well in the media and in the House of Commons. I worked hard, earning that confidence in terms of public speaking and outreach, but also on all of the grunt work in terms of managing my constituency with excellence, being at events, understanding my constituents’ concerns, holding really robust town halls, telephone town halls, community events, surveys, and also building a team. Politics is 100% a team sport and I think having a great team around me really prepared me and positioned me for success in Cabinet. Now Cabinet is a huge responsibility because I am actually in charge of a government department. This portfolio is a great match for my background. I have an educational background in economics and a professional background in consulting and working on intellectual property management. That background has helped to accelerate where I want to take the department because I understand how it works, but also because of all the work I did in the House of Commons and in the party, I know how to marry success in my portfolio with Government objectives, which is the sweet spot for success. 

Ultimately, everything boils down to hard work. You have to work hard and you have to be focused, and that’s the key to my path here.

What does a day-in-the-life of a Cabinet Minister look like/ What does a Cabinet Minister actually do?

Super busy. I mean that’s sort of the thesis statement. It’s so busy and it’s varied because there are many different components to this job. I’ve got constituency work in terms of being an MP, I’ve also got the legislative and policy work in terms of being a parliamentarian and knowing what we are debating and what’s on the order paper. There’s also the political aspect, like making sure I have a good political network and building that team. Now, as a Cabinet Minister I also need to be a senior level manager, basically at the CEO level for a big department. In that role I am setting our direction, working with stakeholders, making sure we are being wise stewards of taxpayer dollars, doing outreach, and making sure we are informing policy. Then there is my role around the Cabinet table which includes reading files that are sent to Cabinet, researching them, understanding what I want to argue at the Cabinet table, and whether I am going to support something or whether I am going to advocate a different position based on feedback in my portfolio or constituency. So it’s all of these different rings of activity and you really have to be on the ball all of the time. It’s constant and it’s busy.

What has been your favourite moment in this job/your political career?

As a parliamentarian, I do believe that you can maintain a framework of your own political ideology and still work across party lines to achieve a result. Somewhere in that combination is the sweet spot for solid and good policy. One of my favourite memories was passing the Sable Island National Park bill. It didn’t get a lot of attention but if you Google it you’ll see that it was a real multi-partisan effort to get this thing done. It was a situation where I really had to work with my opposition colleagues to get it through committee. The process was really collaborative and we passed it through the House of Commons with a high level of respect and debate and an understanding that we were making something happen. It is a very tangible thing, we protected this piece of land in the middle of the sea for generations to come by working collaboratively through the legislature. Now I can look back and say, “I did that and I made a difference.” That was a big legislative coup.

Of course getting appointed to Cabinet was awesome, but the other favourite memory I’ll leave you with is the first time that I came into the House of Commons. The first time you stand up in the House of Commons and speak you have this moment of, I don’t know how to describe it, but the weight of the situation hits you and you have this respect for the people who brought you there and the ones who came before you and will come after you. Standing up as a young woman, in a democratic country, to argue the perspective of my community was such an incredible moment. I think a lot of parliamentarians will say the same thing. It is a blessing and privilege to do, and it’s special and unique to our country. I’ll never forget that in my lifetime.

What skills or expertise are required for this job?

Typically, when you have a job description for a position you list technical skills. I think the skills-requirement for a parliamentarian is a bit more esoteric, but I gave you a sense of how varied the job is. 

I would say that having people from different professional backgrounds and points of view is what makes better policy because it brings different perspectives to the policy-development forum. You don’t need to be a doctor or a lawyer to be a parliamentarian. If someone was applying to this job I’d ask, do you know how to listen without bias and seek to understand? Do you have confidence in your ability to synthesize information and put it into good policy? Can you communicate effectively? Can you understand complex terminology and distill it into something that makes sense? Can you be a generalist? Do you know when to dig deeper? Can you pick your battles and do you know when to fight for something? I mean, you have to be able to work hard. I talk about this position being a privilege, and you have to afford a privilege with the respect it’s due. Working hard is the way to do that. The skill set for this job is the same as the skill set that anyone who cares about their community would have: a deep sense of care and respect for your role. The last thing I’d say is good judgment. When you are in public life you have to consistently conduct yourself in a way that shows people you have the judgment required for a leadership position.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Get involved in a political party, that is number one. And own your political system. Go to events, lead events, join a riding association, work on campaigns, and understand the culture of the party. Once you know how your party works, then you have the ability to affect change, and you will also understand how to win a nomination. People don’t often talk about the nomination process, but that’s what it boils to. If you are going to run in an election, pick a riding you can win. Pick a party you believe in and learn how to win a nomination and do it. There is also a lot of personal sacrifice involved in this job because of the travel, the amount of time that Parliament sits and the work that is required to get here. But if you want to do it, just own your party system and find the people you need to do that.

Also, in terms of advice, keep people around you that provide constructive criticism, and stay grounded in reality, never lose the ability to accept that criticism. If you are interested in politics, just make sure you have a group of people around you that love and care about you enough to call you on your bullshit.

People often ask me, especially women, how do you deal with all the crap you put up with on a daily basis? You know, you are under the microscope of the press gallery. As a public figure you have to grow a thick skin but you can’t lose your soul in the process. So you need people, once you’ve insolated yourself, who will say, “hey I don’t agree with that decision, have you thought about this?” You need to build an ability to shield yourself from the non-constructive criticism, while still listening to the good stuff. At the end of the day, you’re here to make good policy and good decisions for the country and that is invaluable.

I was a 30-year-old woman who came from a middle class family. I’m not a millionaire, I put myself through school, I worked full-time. I think my story is one that, when you look across the parliamentary benches, a lot of MPs share. These are people you would meet in a supermarket and that is the beauty of the Canadian political system. I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that our democracy is dead because everyone has a choice to get involved and make a difference. The barriers to entry in this country are low and you get to make the decision of how hard you work. As someone who isn’t elected, you get to decide how you keep your representatives to account. It’s so vital. Anybody can do this. There’s no rocket science or magic formula, it’s just hard work and caring.

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