If Laurin Liu could run the country, she'd fight to lower college costs. As a member of Canada's Parliament, that's what she plans to do. "Tuition should be accessible," says Liu, 20, who pays C$2,067.90 ($2,130) a year to attend Montreal's McGill University. Now she's putting her education on hold to make $157,731 a year as a rookie politician in Ottawa. She'll be joined by three fellow students from her campus political club, in addition to a McGill doctoral student, all of whom campaigned under the banner of Canada's New Democratic Party in May 2 elections. "To be honest, I agreed to run as a favor to the party," says Liu. "I didn't expect to win."
Much has been made of the comfortable majority Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper will enjoy when Canada's new Parliament convenes on June 2. Yet the election also produced big gains for the NDP, which captured 103 seats, up from 36. The result may be the youngest and most eccentric official opposition in the country's history. Along with the so-called McGill Five, voters elected an NDP slate that includes a 19-year-old political science student from another university and a bartender who spent part of the six-week campaign in Las Vegas. Some of the newbie politicians have barely set foot in the districts they represent. Liu, for one, spent most of her time stumping for another NDP candidate and only learned of her victory via a text message from a friend on election night.
The phenomenon that is the McGill Five reflects the quirks of the Canadian electoral system. Citizens don't vote directly for Prime Minister. They vote for the party candidate at the local level, and the leader whose party wins the most seats in Parliament forms the government. In districts—or ridings, as they are called in Canada—where a party has had no success in the past, a marginal candidate can get elected in an upset, riding the wave of support for a national party. That's what happened in Québec, where the NDP swept up 59 federal seats, up from just one. "They're called pylons, traffic cones you put in place to fill out the party roster," says John Duffy, a policy consultant at StrategyCorp in Toronto. "There's no landslide big enough to have complete nonentities get into the picnic in the United States."
It didn't help, of course, that a no-confidence vote suddenly toppled Harper's minority government in late March, leaving Canada's 18 federal political parties scrambling to assemble a full slate of candidates for all the 308 seats in the House of Commons. NDP officials say they're thrilled with their new crop of fresh-faced MPs. "Canadians are too often represented by lawyers and businessmen," says Kathleen Monk, a spokesperson for NDP Leader Jack Layton.
Maybe so, but some might wonder how much these Millennial politicians will rally around an NDP agenda that's focused on protecting pensions and financial incentives for people to build so-called granny flats for their aging parents. Certainly that's not what's top of mind for Pierre-Luc Dusseault who, at 19, is the youngest MP ever elected. Like Liu, he wants to bring down the cost of postsecondary education by increasing federal transfer payments for that purpose. As for those who may say he's too young for the job, Dusseault counters that "the House of Commons is supposed to represent everyone."
For Dusseault, the new job means giving up his summer job at a golf course to hire a staff and finding a place to live in Ottawa. McGill's Charmaine Borg won't be able to spend her junior semester abroad in Mexico as she'd planned. Liu may get a driver's license to handle the commute.
With Harper's sizable majority, the freshman MPs may find their influence is limited. "Some may stay afloat and learn the craft," says Duffy. "Most will blow out to sea and remember this as the best job they ever had."
The bottom line: The youngest members of Canada's New Democratic Party may find their agendas at odds with their party's.