Vol. 20  No. 3  Mar. 2, 2007  Next Issue: Mar. 16, 2006
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Liberals try to pick up more women
OTTAWA  |  The Liberal party has abandoned the controversial idea of running women-only nominations for the next election, but it has not ruled out appointing women or discouraging men from running in some ridings.

"I think anyone who has an appreciation of politics will be able to understand this system [the current system] is set up really for middle-aged white males," says Gerard Kennedy, special advisor to Liberal leader Stéphane Dion for election readiness and renewal.

"Some effort needs to be done to encourage, recruit and empower women and to bring the party kicking and screaming into the 21st century."

Famous five statue on parliament hill
The 'Famous Five' wait for company on Parliament Hill.

The party floated the idea of holding women-only nominations earlier this year as a possible means to boost the ranks of female candidates in the next election. During last year’s Liberal leadership race, Stéphane Dion said he wanted one-third of Liberal candidates in the next election to be women.

"The party in general agrees that this is an inconsistency that has to be remedied," says Kennedy. "It is just way overdue."

Currently, women comprise only 21 per cent of all MPs in the House of Commons, despite the fact that they represent more than half of the Canadian population.

The Liberals have 21 female MPs in their 101-person caucus.

As of January 2007, Canada ranked 47th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union in electing women, behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Mozambique.

To address the shortage of female parliamentarians, the Liberals appointed Linda Julien, a Montreal lawyer, as Women’s Candidate Search Director to recruit women to run. So-called green-light committees have been struck to meet the party’s 33 per cent target. These committees are designed to compile personal information, interview, evaluate and scrutinize potential candidates.

No lack of interest

"For quite a while, we will need intervention on behalf of the party to make this plan become a reality," she said. "What we are trying to do right now is to level the playing field."

Julien said she is encouraged by the interest, and that her phones are presently "ringing off the hook" with potential candidates.

Graph of 2006 election candidates
Breakdown of candidates in 2006 federal election. Click to open in PDF.

At this point, Julien said she has more than100 documented candidates, with about 50 from Ontario, over 40 from Quebec, about a dozen from the Atlantic region and up to a dozen candidates in each of the Western and Prairie provinces.

Carolyn Bennett, a Toronto-area Liberal MP and long-time advocate of increased female representation, says gender should not be the sole consideration when determining nominations.

"We [the Liberal party] have always shunned having women leapfrog over a better candidate for the sake of chromosomes."

However, she adds: "The old boys club has worked very well for the boys in the past. We just want it to work for the girls now, too."

Bennett said she believes reaching the one-third female candidates plateau this time around will be a challenge, given that Dion has promised to protect all the incumbent Liberal MPs from nomination challenges.

Tories reject quotas

To meet its 33 per cent target, the Liberals need to run 103 female candidates in the next election. By contrast, Bev Oda, the minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women says that while she supports having more women in parliament, the Conservative party would never institute a quota system like the Liberals.

'Parties are the gatekeepers. They have a stranglehold on who represents us [women].'

"It just seems like a superficial approach and is reflective of the Liberal party’s approach to women in Canada," she says. "They have a women’s caucus, which separates the women members from the men. They have a Pink Book which places the views and interests of female Canadians in a different book from the party book…You don’t need someone to manipulate the democratic nomination system within the ridings."

However, Jill Vickers, a Chancellor’s professor of political science at Carleton University, disagrees with Oda. She says if more women are going to be elected, political parties need to intervene with some kind of nomination strategy.

"[Increased female representation] will not happen otherwise," she said. "Parties are the gatekeepers. They have a stranglehold on who represents us."

Substantive action needed

Vickers says having ridings with only women candidates is probably the only sure-fire way to boost the ranks of women in any party’s caucus, given the nature of Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system.

This wouldn’t be the first time in Canadian history that an all-women process has been considered to boost the number of females contesting in elections.

Women in Canadian politics

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Vickers says former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was so embarrassed by the lack of women candidates from Quebec in his caucus that he held an all-women nomination process. This "leader coercion" paved the way for the election of high-profile candidates like Jeanne Sauvé and Monique Bégin.

Kennedy said the Liberals are well aware of the potential price they may pay at the polls for pushing women candidates.

"I think anytime you do something that is advancing things artificially and make changes, there is a price we will pay," said Kennedy.

"We are asking Canadians to really think hard that this isn’t about advantaging women, it’s about leveling the playing field. Any appointment would come with a cost because it’s not strictly speaking democratic, but justifiable under the circumstances."

Related Links

Opens in a new window National Women's Liberal Commission

Opens in a new window Equal Voice

Opens in a new window Library of Parliament research paper on women in parliament

Opens in a new window Submissions to the Liberal Task Force on Women

Opens in a new window Inter-Parliamentary Union on women in politics
Women in the House by the numbers

64 — women currently sit in the House of Commons

20.8 — per cent of House seats held by women

52 — per cent of population that are women

7 — women serve in the 35-member Federal Cabinet

30— women sit in the Senate

90 — per cent of Canadians say they would like to see more women elected

373 — number of female candidates in the 2006 election

241 —ridings had at least one female candidate in the last election

200 — women have been elected to the House of Commons since earning that right in 1921

Source: Equal Voice

Success rates

The major hurdle for women in Canada appears to be at the party level rather than at the polls. Women running for office in Canada are only slightly less likely to be elected than men.

The 64 women elected in January 2006 represented 17 per cent of all women candidates running for office in that election, only slightly lower than the 19 per cent success rate for male candidates. If the electorate is not actively discriminating against women candidates, why are more women not elected?

Changes to the electoral system may help bolster the representation of women in parliament. The vast majority of countries that have reached 30 per cent of women in their lower house of parliament have done so through the use of measures such as proportional representation electoral systems (described below) or the use of electoral quotas.

Countries that rely exclusively on the "first-past-the-post" electoral system, as does Canada, consistently have lower levels of representation of women.

Source: Library of Parliament report on women in parliament

The barriers

· Women make less money than men, giving them unequal financial footing from which to launch a campaign or donate to a political party.

· Statistics show women still disproportionately bear the child-rearing and household duties in families, which reduces the amount of time they can devote to politics.

· The power of incumbency reinforces the current composition of parliament. Incumbent MPs, which are disproportionately male, have a greater chance at re-election than new candidates.

· The Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970) found that constituency associations are the biggest barrier to political success. "Women who have been successful at the polls confirm that winning the nomination is a more formidable hurdle than winning the election."

· Academic studies find women are socialized to see politics as an unsuitable career option or interest.

Source: Equal Voice


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