Frank Stronach of Magna wants you to be Prime Minister, and “think out of the box” while you’re at it.

Just don’t expect to be a Prime Minister whose out-of-the-box thinking includes being skeptical about globalization or calling for more support for the CBC — at least not while you’re a participant in the Magna for Canada scholarship program.

The highly-promoted scholarship fund, founded by the Austrian-born business tycoon almost ten years ago, presents itself as a forum for young Canadian leaders to exchange ideas on how to improve the country in which they live by answering a deceptively simple essay question. The question boils down to this: “If you were Prime Minister, what would you do to raise living standards?”

But things aren’t as simple as they seem. If your essay makes it to the final 50, be prepared for almost a week’s worth of booze-fuelled gossip, agenda-driven public speakers, and dozens of encounters with people you sincerely hope will never actually get to become Prime Minister.

I learned all of this first hand this month, as I was invited as one of the final 50 (out of an annual competition that includes a few hundred candidates) to go to Toronto and present their “as Prime Minister” ideas to a national panel of esteemed judges. Since I was one of the last on-site presenters, I limited my alcohol consumption throughout the first part of the week’s festivities. Here’s what I saw in the run-up to my actual presentation:

The most interesting part of my experience was meeting the actual candidates. There were three types of presenters at the competition.

The first group was the overly-ambitious, who actually gave you the feeling that they had been campaigning to be Prime Minister since they first joined their high school debating club. They would shake your hand, size you up, and if you weren’t a potential ally (or worse, a potential threat) in their ultimate goal to set up shop in the PMO, you were mercifully ignored. Many of these candidates had lost in past years, but for quite a few of them, essay-writing persistence paid off in spades: at least five of this year’s ten finalists had, in fact, been among the semi-finalists of previous years.

The second group was the ideologues. These folks were more problematic, since they usually competed for the top scholarships with the “born-to-be PM” types (almost always from central Canada), but lacked their opponents’ charisma. They would make up for this with shrill and, in many ways, predictable ideas.

An example? This was how one of last year’s winners summed up the complex relationship between Canadians and First Nations communities in his own prize-winning essay: “why are native peoples given countless tax exemptions, as well as a different status in society than anyone else? Because their ancestors lost land to my ancestors? I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors?”

Charming stuff. Other popular topics for the ideologues were free trade, lower taxation, and less government. A particularly favourite subject was Senate reform. Obviously, no one in this crowd had ever heard of Sir John A. Macdonald’s biographer Donald Creighton, who famously dismissed Senate reform as “one of the stalest and most fraudulent exercises in Canadian politics.”

You tell them, Donald. And since when did Senate reform have anything to do with “raising living standards” anyway?

Finally, there were the average Joes and Jills like me, who actually came into the competition keen to share their ideas. Such an open mind was generally frowned upon during cocktail hour, since it might give away trade secrets. As a result, instead of sharing ideas, many of us ended up talking about our home towns, or compared favourite episodes of The Trailer Park Boys. In many ways, we were typical Canadian hosers, coming from the Maritimes, Hamilton, east-end Montreal or the Prairies (one of the honorary hosers was actually from China, but studied at McGill). I came away from the week thinking that if us hosers ever formed a political party, we might not get elected, but we would be heck of a lot more fun to join.

Another interesting part of the Magna program was the early-morning speeches, meant to inspire us “leaders of tomorrow” to think big. The first scheduled presenters were two partisan hacks, Warren Kinsella (Liberal) and Jamie Watt (Harrisite Tory), who proceeded to show us campaign attack ads (mostly American, although they included a few from the Ontario Tories) for about half an hour. I guess the whole purpose of their presentation was to remind us “leaders of tomorrow” that the best way to get your ideas implemented is to attack the ideas of an opponent.

I skipped out on most of the other presentations (including one by a former Magna winner, now a political fixer for Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper), but happened to sit in on one seminar on bio-ethics. Throughout the presentation, the speaker attempted to throw in small doses of Christian religion to the unsuspecting audience. At least I was unsuspecting — as a good Anglican from New Brunswick, I thought religion was only for Sundays and the occasional private prayer, and not meant for what I thought was a secular forum.

But the real highlight of the Magna program had to be the parties. Here, the booze was poured freely, all on the company tab. I found it ironic that a scholarship program whose past winners have made a point of crusading against government largesse certainly didn’t seem to mind if the largesse came from a private-sector sponsor.

At one of the evening events, current Magna CEO Belinda Stronach gave a lovely speech congratulating us for our ideas, and our interest in Canada’s development. Since we were on a boat cruising the Toronto harbour, she then called for a water taxi, to take her off the boat before the evening was through. (I guess our ideas may have been interesting to her, but spending the evening drinking with 50 geeky kids was of no interest whatsoever to the individual who was picking up the tab.)

At the final gala, another Magna official spent much of the evening drinking shooters with the male contestants. Since all the drinks were on the company tab, I guess the girls were expected to order their own.

It was at the final gala that I realized my essay was out of the running. My presentation, held that afternoon, went well, and midway through the evening one of the judges told me as a group they were impressed. But the problem, according to the judge, was that many of ideas were “too regional”. Apparently, as someone who hails from Atlantic Canada, I took the competition’s challenge of “raising living standards” across the country too literally, and as a result focussed some of my ideas where they could have the greatest impact — in the Maritimes, for a long time the poor cousin of Confederation.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should outline my Maritime ideas. One was the abolition of Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a regional slush fund that has a corrupting influence on politics Down East. I argued that the funds spent on ACOA should be invested in locally-controlled citizens’ banks. The other idea was the construction of a Maine Corridor Road, a regional highway joining southern New Brunswick with Quebec’s Eastern townships. This highway would make Atlantic manufacturers more competitive by simply introducing smaller transportation costs. Apparently, neither idea made an impression on the judges who did not reside in the Maritimes.)

The fact that my essay didn’t make it to the next round didn’t bother me so much as the fact that one of the reasons for its demise was that it was “too regional.” The great Maritime sage, Dalton Camp, would not have been impressed, for he believed — as I do — that the government of Canada should work for all Canadians, and not simply those who are wealthy or live in populous regions. Camp would have found it particularly galling that the judge who told me my ideas were “too regional” in fact came from Atlantic Canada, and is still warmly received there.

Oh well, I guess some regional ideas — like “innovation” tax breaks that favour highly-industrialized provinces — are acceptable to the judges, while others are not. Chalk up another win for Central Canada (of the ten winners this year, eight were from Ontario and Quebec, with two from Alberta).

Of course, my essay had other strikes against it. I called for a National Endowment for Culture and Learning, along the lines of the Canada Council, established way back in 1957, when the federal government cared about arts and culture. I’m sure that one went over well with the judges. A previous winner of the Magna for Canada scholarship called for the abolition of the CBC.

Perhaps all of this is sour grapes, but I certainly detected a conservative bias at the Magna for Canada program. My room-mate at the competition, a nice chap from Saskatchewan, proudly championed causes that once made his home province unique: his essay called for progressive taxation, strong environmental rules, etc. In retrospect, he probably never had a chance. Another participant, a bright young woman from MacMaster, caused some murmurs at one of the particpants’ meetings when she suggested that a proposed alumni association should be non-partisan. She didn’t win either.

One of the Maritime judges encouraged me to enter the competition again next year. Since I wouldn’t change the ideas in my essay, I probably won’t. But I have suggestions for those who do plan on entering: champion lower taxes and globalization, and use buzz-words like “innovation.” Don’t worry if you don’t actually believe in that stuff. You can always change your mind, and the national winners get $10,000 and a four-month internship at Magna International.

That’s a lot of cash, and just to restore a sense of balance to the competition, you can use your time interning to organize Magna plants on behalf of the CAW.