09/22/2015 12:35 EDT | Updated 09/22/2016 05:12 EDT

The Leader is Important, But Candidates Matter Too

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Attendees holds signs in support of different candidates ahead of the second leaders' debate in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. The debate pits Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party's program of tax cuts and spending restraint against the Liberal Party's Justin Trudeau, who is pledging to raise taxes on the highest earners, and Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party, who advocates increasing levies on corporations. Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week's Globe and Mail debate in Calgary was a lively exchange between the three main party leaders. General elections are almost always votes on political parties and their leaders, and this one is no exception. When we cast our ballot, most of us believe that we are voting for a prime minister. Indirectly, we are. But we actually vote for an individual who, if elected, sits in the House of Commons as the representative of one of 338 federal constituencies in Canada.

The House of Commons is the most important legislative institution in our democracy. Its members propose, debate, scrutinize and make laws. These laws put meat on the bones of our national value system and define who we are. They impact our individual lives and profoundly influence the direction and shape of the nation. At their core, members of the House of Commons are not paid to be cheerleaders; they are legislators charged with scrutinizing government spending and bills, and propose amendments to legislation. They should also keep the executive branch (the prime minister and cabinet) accountable so that its already considerable powers don't render impotent the very tenets of democracy.

MPs are elected representatives of their constituents, their province and their individual consciences. At the same time, they are elected and serve under a party banner. They have a responsibility to support their party and its leadership to advance an agenda and ensure a unity of action, purpose and message. Good governance in a democratic society requires it. But they also have a duty to the people who voted for them, as well as the institution of parliament itself, to balance that with constructive debate, criticism and, above all, rigorous legislative oversight.

So, despite our creeping cynicism and dismissiveness of our MPs, few jobs are as important, and the people whose names are actually on the ballot matter a lot. Yet, we rarely take time to assess whether they should be entrusted with the duties of a lawmaker. Often, our only focus is on the party leader, which comes at the expense of getting to know the person we are actually going to be voting for.

An important measure of a leader is the calibre of people they attract to run for office in the first place. In this election year, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has managed to assemble an exceptionally diverse, talented and remarkably accomplished team. Among them is Sven Spengemann, the Liberal Party's candidate in Mississauga-Lakeshore.

Sven is a lawyer and holds a Doctorate from Harvard Law School, a Master's degree in European Law from the College d'Europe in Bruges, a Bachelor of Laws from Osgoode Hall Law School and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto. And that's just for starters. Sven is a Fulbright Scholar and private pilot; spent a summer crossing Canada and back on his motorcycle; and went on an expedition to climb Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak, to raise money for UNICEF Canada.

Spengemann served as a UN official with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Baghdad, Iraq. One of his functions was to build trust and forge consensus within the newly created legislature and executive of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. That was a gargantuan task by any yardstick, and by all accounts Sven was an extremely effective and highly respected contributor.

Sven immigrated to Canada from Germany when he was 14. His is a classic story of a new Canadian. As a boy in a new country, he saw only possibility. He sees it everywhere, without fail, even in a place like war-torn Baghdad.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Sven in Mississauga, and I asked him why he was doing this. He looked up at me and without hesitation said, "I love it, Dan. I really do." It's the people he loves and the idea that he can help them and contribute to making lives better. A guy with his intellect, character, personality, credentials and drive could do anything. But his calling has been public service.

Thankfully, Sven isn't alone. All parties are fielding some really impressive and top-drawer candidates in this election. That should be encouraging to those that believe only leaders matter. They do, of course, but the critical differentiator is the depth and quality of the team a leader builds. In this election, Justin Trudeau's team rises above the pack. Look no further than Sven Spengemann. With any luck, we'll see a lot more like him in the House of Commons.


Best Quotes From Maclean's Canada Election Leaders' Debate