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The chamber of the House of Commons in Ottawa. (FRED CHARTRAND)
The chamber of the House of Commons in Ottawa. (FRED CHARTRAND)

Globe editorial

The hurdle to leap in the next election Add to ...

With Canada on the brink of a federal election in 2010, political leaders should pause to examine the composition of the people who administer our most important democratic institutions. And if they do so critically, party leaders will have to conclude that, for a country that prides itself on its inclusiveness and diversity, Canadians are doing a poor job of reflecting their society in their political ranks.

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Consider the representation of women in political office. In the House of Commons, women comprise 22 per cent of elected representatives. Among the provincial and territorial legislatures, women represent 23 per cent of members. And they account for 23 per cent of people on municipal councils in Canada. While these numbers are the best they have ever been, especially in the federal realm, they have barely budged in decades and are entirely inadequate for a country where 52 per cent of the population is female.

Putting the statistics in a global context offers no consolation. Canada ranks 47th in the world for the proportion of women in its national parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, behind many poor or troubled countries that could make better excuses for a lack of diversity than Canadians can. Among those ahead of Canada are countries such as Rwanda, South Africa, Angola and Iraq. Canada also ranks far behind countries in Scandinavia, as well as other developed nations like Spain, Germany and Australia.

Some argue that part of the problem lies in getting high-quality women to join the game. The hours are notoriously long, the travel can be daunting, and some women are concerned it will take them away from young families. Politics is also inherently confrontational, requiring a thick skin and an ability to keep your elbows up. And it is high-profile. It attracts far more media criticism than praise, not to mention blistering public denunciations by opponents. Many women - and many men - would rather work in roles that are lower-profile or simply more effective than the frustrating realm of politics.

But that reality is made far worse in the current political climate. Rude, frat-boy antics have become the norm in politics, particularly at the federal level. Certainly anyone contemplating a career in politics would think twice after seeing the hazing that the Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett got in October while trying to ask questions about H1N1 in the House of Commons. As a medical doctor, Ms. Bennett deserved to be allowed to ask questions about vaccination programs for pregnant women without being mocked, jeered and laughed at as she struggled to speak. At one point, Ms. Bennett replied in frustration, "This isn't funny!"

Imagine going to work anywhere else and facing such shamefully disrespectful treatment. It is almost unthinkable.

Even with the difficulties of the job, many women are still ready and willing to tackle the task - if they have the opportunity. Indeed, the political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin dismisses the idea that the uncivil atmosphere in Parliament presents the main barrier to women getting involved in politics. In her new book Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada's Unfinished Democracy , she argues the far bigger problem is the private "discomfort" too many men (and women) feel about putting women in positions of power. Many Canadians may not admit it or even realize it, but they still won't embrace the idea of women as leaders, she argues.

Among her many recommendations, Ms. Bashevkin calls for the return of public funding for women's political organizations such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. She also proposes a new requirement for political parties to have a defined quota of women as candidates, as well as the adoption of proportional representation as a way to bolster the number of women elected.

The Ottawa lobby group Equal Voice is pursuing the election of more women on another front, urging political party leaders to adopt voluntary internal quotas for candidate nominations in the next election. Equal Voice has concluded that more profound structural solutions - like proportional representation - are unlikely to be embraced in Canada, given the lack of political support for substantial reforms to the political system.

So the group has decided to tackle a simpler and more realistic reform that recognizes where power lies in the political system - with the all-male party leaders, who have access to funding and political machinery that can provide a huge boost to a favoured candidate. The success of this strategy lies in the fact that promises by party leaders have made a measurable difference. In the most recent federal election, in 2008, for example, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion pledged to run at least one-third female candidates, and exceeded the target at 37 per cent. The result? Twenty-four per cent of Liberals elected in 2008 were women.

But such voluntary efforts have limits. Notably, the ruling Conservatives nominated just 20 per cent women candidates in 2008. And of those elected, just 16 per cent were women - the worst track record among the major parties. In a press release in late September, Equal Voice complained that with 186 candidates nominated so far for the next federal election (out of 308 in total), the Conservatives had named just 21 per cent women.

To add impetus to bring about change, there are other reforms worth considering. The federal New Democrats, for example, have adopted a nomination process that requires riding associations to actively search for minorities when putting forward candidates - an idea that has been tested in other political realms but deserves wider adoption.

Sheila Gervais, the former national director of the Liberal Party of Canada, has written persuasively that money is the best incentive for compelling change. She has proposed new public financing rules requiring parties to dedicate a portion of the taxpayer-supported financing to improving equitable participation in the system, and has recommended parties receive a special subsidy based on the number of women they get elected. Both ideas would give extra momentum to reform.

Canada elected a record 21 per cent women MPs in 1993, a number that has climbed just one percentage point in the 16 years since. A federal election campaign in 2010 would be the ideal time to move women past that sticky barrier. Canada's party leaders and Canadian voters must make it happen.

 

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