Donna Dasko is an Ontario senator, former pollster and co-founder of Equal Voice, an organization that promotes greater representation of women in politics.
As Canadians remain focused on day-to-day life in a pandemic, the nominations that will determine the face of Canada’s next Parliament are proceeding under the public’s radar. The federal parties like nominating under the radar. They work hard to keep it that way.
Federal political parties, using processes they set for themselves, are deciding today who will decide how Canada rebuilds after COVID-19. Can we be confident that women will reach parity with men in the next Parliament? Women now hold 30 per cent of seats in our House of Commons, giving Canada a ranking of 52nd in the world. We have a long way to go.
Our experience with COVID-19 adds urgency to increasing the representation of women, in all their diversity. Many of the challenges we face have their roots in long-standing family and work realities that are gendered and racialized.
Looming particularly large are the structural faults laid bare by this scourge, including women’s labour force participation, the need for accessible and affordable child care, reform of the care sector, enhanced income security, overall preparedness and sustainability.
A rare plus of Canada’s efforts to manage COVID-19 is that we have seen women successfully operate in top leadership positions: a federal finance minister, federal and provincial health ministers, heads of public health agencies, medical professionals and experts. What explains the marked underrepresentation of women in the House of Commons?
We should make no mistake about the source of this country’s electoral gender gap. We cannot blame women for not stepping forward, since there is no shortage of women wanting to run. In 2019, 736 women ran for office federally, enough to fill the House of Commons twice over. And we cannot blame the voters either, since academic research and public opinion surveys have shown that Canadians are consistently as willing to vote for women as they are for men. So “blaming the victim” and “electability” are off the table as explanations.
A key source of Canada’s electoral gender gap is party gatekeeping. One of the few things federal political parties agree on is that they must be self-governing. In a perfect example of conflict of interest, their alignment on this issue has blocked any parliamentary action to reform nominations processes. As recently as April, 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women, in a wide study of women’s representation in electoral politics, tepidly “observed” (it did not “recommend”) that it “encourages registered parties to set voluntary quotas for the percentage of female candidates they field in federal elections and to publicly report on their efforts to meet these quotas after every federal election.”
Party processes are not easily accessible by the public. Research suggests that the Liberals, NDP and Greens require a diversity search committee as part of candidate nominations; it appears that the Conservatives do not. There are no voluntary quotas, and there is no voluntary transparency on the recruitment and nomination of women, as the Commons committee “encouraged.”
As a result of relentless scrutiny and advocacy by women over decades, national parties have slowly increased the number of women nominated. The women who are nominated, however, are elected less than men. In 2019, 39.3 per cent of Liberal nominations went to women, but in the election, just 31.1 per cent of Liberal MPs elected were women. The Conservatives nominated 32 per cent women but only 18.2 per cent of Conservative MPs who won seats were women; the NDP nominated 48.5 per cent women and had 37.5 per cent elected; the Greens nominated 46.1 per cent women and had 66.7 per cent elected.
Professors Melanee Thomas and Marc André Bodet argue, using data from the 2004 to 2011 federal elections, that women are more likely to be nominated by a party in ridings that party cannot win. Women are disproportionately nominated in other party’s strongholds, not those of their own party.
After the 2019 election the CBC quoted Prof. Thomas commenting on its report that for every 100 women running, 16 won, while for every 100 men running, 29 won: “The issue is that parties consistently across the board keep nominating women in places where they can’t win.”
It is time to shed some light, indeed shine a spotlight, on nominations. Canadians have every reason to want better information, transparency and financial accountability through existing mechanisms under the Canada Elections Act and the Chief Electoral Officer.
Candidates should be required to disclose their sex/gender on their nomination paper. (Currently this is not mandatory, and this information is not included in the List of Confirmed Candidates published by Elections Canada.) Canada should adopt a definition of “stronghold riding,” (for instance, ridings in which a party has won in two previous elections) and should report on results in stronghold ridings by sex/gender. We should also change our political financing rules to incentivize or sanction the parties to achieve gender equity.
Canadians have every reason to want their federal parties to eliminate the gender gap in nominations and results. Given the historic reluctance of the parties in the Commons to increase public scrutiny of their operations, these modest initiatives could be launched in the Senate, thereby giving Canadians a forum to study the proposals and express their views.
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