The extraordinary gender change in Canadian political leadership has arrived without much fanfare. But we’ve never seen anything like it. Just a few years ago, it was hard to find a female premier anywhere; they were a political subspecies.
Overnight, it has all changed. Now, women run much of the federation. They are at the controls in five provinces – including every big one in the country – and one territory. There’s Kathleen Wynne, who was sworn in as the Premier of Ontario on Monday. There’s Alison Redford in Alberta, Christy Clark in British Columbia and Pauline Marois in Quebec. Add to them Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador. And don’t forget Eva Aariak in Nunavut.
There used to be a perception that women weren’t tough enough for the job. Any of these women could surely kick that canard out the door. But will they bring about much change to the political culture? It’s a good bet they’ll bring a greater degree of integrity and morality to politics. Not that they’ll be squeaky clean. Some of the aforementioned face questions of ethical breaches. But given the male precedent, the task of forging a higher degree of public respect for the system should be achievable.
A greater test will be whether any of the female premiers can become national figures – nation builders. We’ve had provincial leaders before who were larger than the territories they led – men like Peter Lougheed, William Davis and Tommy Douglas.
It being an important time for nation-building, such heavyweights are needed now. The female premiers, for example, will play a pivotal role in discussions about national pipeline construction, a national energy strategy and whether Canada should take care of its own energy needs first or let the resources go to the highest bidder.
Speaking of morality in politics, the matter of Senate reform is currently on many minds. Support from the premiers is key. Their role is essential for the future of our health-care system, national economic questions and, with Quebec having elected a separatist government, unity.
But for any of our first ministers hoping to gain national standing, the task is now more difficult. The best platforms for premiers to showcase themselves have been taken away. These were the first ministers’ summit conferences with the prime minister. Stephen Harper’s federal government has ended the tradition, which began in the 1930s.
Pierre Trudeau held about 20 such conferences. Brian Mulroney hosted 14. In keeping with their desire for complete control of the agenda, today’s Conservatives have had just one. Mr. Harper doesn’t want feuding first ministers around his table. It’s understandable, in a way. While some summits were successes, others saw premiers grandstanding, beating up on Ottawa or ganging up for a money grab.
But past problems, many of which stemmed from constitutional warring, do not mean the summits should be abandoned. They are a nation-building challenge to be faced, not dodged. It is normal practice for leaders of major organizations to meet with their big constituent parts to thrash out problems and priorities. Mr. Harper shows skill and moxie at international forums and would be capable of the same here. He excuses himself by saying he meets often with the premiers separately. That’s true. But other prime ministers did that as well as bring all the premiers together.
As commentator Bruce Anderson has observed, the big meetings help create a sustained discussion on how the different parts of Canada work together. Something important has been lost, he says. The very fact that the conferences were held exposed the premiers to the national interest and created pressure on them to act in that interest. The parochial actors were separated from the national ones. Stars were born, as were villains.
With all the new female premiers, with pressing national issues, with the country in need of a clearer sense of direction, it’s time to renew our national summits. Let’s see what the women can bring to the table. Let’s see if they can be more effective nation builders than the men.