Political Animals

The purpose of campus political groups... and why people are joining them

In a cluttered AMS office, John Zerucelli dives for the phone. He’s the assistant manager for the AMS’ Student Constables—and he also happens to be the president of the Queen’s University Young Liberal Association.

“Sorry—I’ll just be a sec, I have just got to take this call,” he says while answering the call. Zerucelli is a busy guy; not only is he helping to run the StuCons, but he is also a full time student in his final year (yep—Political Studies), and one of the committee chairs on the Queen’s Model Parliament Committee. Even then, his political involvement doesn’t end there. Zerucelli is involved with the preliminary stages of Member of Parliament Roy Cullen’s campaign as well as Bittu George’s campaign for a seat on city council, here in Kingston.

More surprising than the fact that he finds the time to do all of this may be the way he became involved in politics in the first place. While fear of the unknown prevents many from stepping into the political fray, for Zerucelli, curiosity was a catalyst.

“Politics was something I didn’t know or understand. Before I was involved, I could barely name the Prime Minister.” Following his instincts, Zerucelli walked into the campaign headquarters for a provincial Liberal candidate and became involved right there and then. When asked if he thought that this was a little out of the ordinary, John just shrugged, saying that “when you’re younger you take chances.”

Zerucelli said that there were other considerations for joining as well.

“I had a feeling that students don’t have enough of a voice. I want students to be active in politics.”

He’s not alone.

“Aristotle said we are all political animals,” reads a pamphlet encouraging students to join the Young Liberals of Canada. However, anyone who thinks they know anything about campus life at Queen’s would probably tell you the Greek philosopher had it at least half wrong. Few students are actively involved in politics on and off campus for lack of time or, probably more importantly, interest.

This probably isn’t a shock to many readers out there. Queen’s—bastion of conservatism (note the small ‘c’) that it is—was not home to many protests during the 1960s or 1970s. Even last February’s fairly successful rally against tuition hikes seems to be the exception rather than the rule. For better or for worse, activism has not been a huge part of campus life.

Still, it’s probably not fair to suggest Queen’s is a complete political vacuum. A listing of clubs on campus will reveal groups for everything. From pro-life clubs to the Ontario Public Research Interest Group, there seems to be someone to represent your political interests, whatever they are.

And then there are the actual political parties themselves.

Queen’s youth politics. Home to the Mike Harris Fan Club and loyal suck-ups to the P.M., right? Groups for the politically ambitious and politics majors. Networking clubs to latch on to a minister and catch a ride to a job on Parliament Hill.

Well, not necessarily (except for the politics majors, but we’ll get there later).

So, exactly what are these Queen’s youth organizations about and why are students plunking down five bucks to join them?

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have given a conclusion that I had reached after spending four years in youth politics; that, when it came down to it, there were two groups of people.

First, there are your ‘eager-and-will-lay-down-my-life-for-the-party’ types who seem to believe that the political process actually works and that parties can actually influence government. On the other hand, there are also the cynical ‘I-hate-party-politics-but-this-is-my-only-hope-in-hell-for-a-job’ types that... well, I guess the name says it all.

But is this really being fair? On the surface it may seem so, but going out and talking with some of the people involved in partisan youth politics on campus may change your mind.

Though it’s easy to be cynical about why people join these sorts of things, it would seem that many students are involved for the kinds of reasons Zerucelli talks about. When asking Queen’s young political junkies why they are involved, you’re bound to get the usual party rhetoric, but that comes with the territory. However, underneath the sound bites normally lies—surprise, surprise— good intentions.

Jon Bromstein is in third year here at Queen’s, not in Political Studies, but majoring in Computer Science. He is a member both of the Queen’s Progressive Conservative Association of Ontario and the Canadian Alliance. He is also heavily involved in partisan politics. This summer, Bromstein was the Youth Co-Chair of the Stockwell Day Convention Team and worked at the Ontario Progressive Conservative headquarters. But Bromstein is involved for more than the jobs—and he’s very direct about it.

“The Alliance is the only chance to defeat the Chretien government,” he said with the same sort of conviction and hope that other people reserve for their favourite football team. Bromstein explained that he was attracted to a party that reflected his “conservative values” that he also feels will “revitalize the economy and instill a sense of faith in government.” Tired of the “mushy middle, with no new ideas or strong positive changes,” in Bromstein’s eyes, he turned to the CA to make a difference.

For second-year politics and history student Joanne MacDonald, the process of getting involved was a gradual one. “My parents are interested in politics and I would always ask them questions. Soon I started going to political rallies. When I came to Queen’s I saw Howard Hampton speak. I thought he was a really decent person and I joined the NDP.”

MacDonald is currently the president of the Young NDP on campus and sees partisan politics as both an expression of herself and a way of expressing her views.

“Politics affects everything around you. I believe that the political party you join says something about who you are. It reflects your morals and belonging to a party is a way to advance them,” she argued.

So you’re interested in political parties—what are you going to get when you join a campus organization? Well, in a lot of cases that depends what you put into the club. The political parties usually have around 200-300 registered, card-carrying members, but normally only 20 of which actually show up for meetings on a regular basis. Both QULA and QPC have meetings that are geared for creating and discussing policy. They also send members to conventions and, in the great Canadian political tradition of Sir John A. Macdonald, social events and keggers. Drunken politics anyone?

Joining an organization doesn’t mean that you’re entering some sort of vicious, political cult. If you’re QPC you’re still allowed to talk with your Liberal-loving roommate or your tree-hugging best friend. The relationships between the partisan groups on campus are surprisingly good. It’s not uncommon to see Liberals at Tory functions (or vice versa) for chatting, beer and the occasional debate.

What else is in it for you? According to Zerucelli, there are a number of things that have kept him involved. “I’ve enjoyed being politically active. I’ve learned about myself as a person. I feel that I’m doing some good by staying involved.” If that’s not enough, at the very least, you can say you didn’t sit around and do nothing while tuition or taxes increased (depending on your ideology).

More importantly, what else is in it for them? Why are the ‘real’ political organizations interested in having young people involved? After all, you can join a political party as early as age 14 (and you are considered a youth until you reach age 26).

The easy answer would be to say that the young are encouraged to join as the grunt-workers of the parties. They are often the ones that hand out the pamphlets, make the phone calls and smile for the cameras. But that isn’t the whole story. The political organizations with youth wings: the Liberals, the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP, often claim that their youth-wings are training grounds for the future of the party. And the evidence tends to make their case. Both Joe Clark and Jean Chretien were once the presidents of their respective political youth wings.

The Alliance, for its part, does not believe in youth chapters, asserting that all of their supporters and members should be considered equal. Oftentimes at conventions, the large number of youth that turn out are clearly not a representative number of society, and the Alliance claims that they are striving for mass appeal; they do not want its young people’s contributions to overshadow those of everyone else.

People may actually have good intentions when it comes to joining these political parties. So where did I get my own “two types of political people” prejudices that I mentioned earlier from? Standing around a convention hall filled with loyal partisans calling out the name of the Prime Minister can sometimes remind you of the chanting brainwashed sheep in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. That, and watching students climb all over themselves to be the first to suck up to a minister to get a job-lead for the umpteenth time causes one to question the amount of altruism left in politically active students.

But after speaking with students about why they are involved I can’t get over the feeling that I was, at least partially, mistaken.

“I guess some people could see me as an idealist. But I am involved because I hope to help others,” said Zerucelli. “People say ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘you can’t influence anything’ but I still hope that I can make a difference no matter how small. I don’t think that people need to be directly involved in partisan politics but I think they need to vote.”

MacDonald echoed the need for people to be involved to vote. “For people who aren’t interested in politics, they see it as something away from them and something they aren’t a part of. A lot of people don’t have any political view,” she says. “They say ‘Oh, I live in Canada, so I don’t have to worry about government abusing power.’ The only thing is, when people actually start to believe that, that’s when governments get out of control.”

Sincerity and concern in a political party—what’s the world coming to?

So you may not be a “political animal, ” but before you sneer at political groups on campus, consider the words of another Greek philosopher, Plato: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

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