Ah, the perils of youth

Lisa Raitt and her 26-year-old aide, Jasmine MacDonnell, in less controversial times

Were it possible for a building to sigh with relief, the House of Commons would have done so as news broke of an audiotape on which Lisa Raitt, the embattled (and luckless) natural resources minister, criticizes a colleague and refers to cancer as a “sexy” issue. As Raitt was assailed by commentators and opponents, dozens of ministers and hundreds of parliamentarians who’d said much, much worse during moments of dark candour were surely thinking the same thing: there but for the grace of slightly less incompetent staffers go I.

Raitt’s musings had been recorded, apparently by accident, and the recorder misplaced, apparently by accident, by Jasmine MacDonnell—the same aide who’d left behind a binder of sensitive briefing material at CTV’s Ottawa bureau, apparently by accident. In the time it took to write this paragraph, MacDonnell also misplaced her hat, car keys and umbrella. (Unsurprisingly, she’s lost her job, too.)

MacDonnell is 26 years old—young for a communications director to a minister, but not that young. I spent a little more than two years in government as chief speech writer to Paul Martin, taking the job just days before my 36th birthday, and there were meetings and social encounters when I felt as ancient as a star cluster or a Golden Girl. Parliament Hill runs on youth—exploiting its devotion, its energy and its ignorance of things called “holidays.”

Some of the young men and women are brilliant. All of them are ambitious. Most work very long hours, thriving on the travel, the late nights and the thrill of being at the centre of it all. So far as politicians and senior advisers are concerned, it doesn’t hurt that many of these family- and responsibility-free staffers are, to put it kindly, unburdened by complex world views. They are easily moulded into passionate and true believers in the cause. The depth of their loyalty—perhaps best embodied by MacDonnell’s willingness to go to court to try to stop publication of her unfortunate audiotape—can be downright adorable.

But while in government, I never got the sense that ministers or MPs ever considered how fully their fortunes were entwined with those of their staffers—how the slip-up of an underling can damage a reputation or short-circuit an electric career. Listening to the Raitt audiotape, it is hard not to be struck by MacDonnell’s penchant for upspeak (a primarily youthful practice in which one’s voice rises to make a sentence sound, oh so annoyingly, like a question) and her steady stream of “yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah”—agreeing with everything her minister said, and often agreeing more than once. This was the person entrusted as a top aide to the minister responsible for medical isotopes, a crucial element in cancer treatments. She sounded like a character from The Hills.

But that is youth, too. Politicians often blather about the young people of Canada being our future—but in Ottawa they are already shaping our present, one sound bite, policy idea and wayward binder at a time.