Sunday, April 29, 2007

Change the system to get more women into politics
Apr. 27, 2007

So the debate around how to get more women into politics is back in the news again. I have to admit, it’s much harder to feel enthusiasm for the fight this time around, having already seen how the story ended last time.
I note that we’re currently at the point in the discussion where we’re trying to decide whether it’s worth it to infringe on the democratic election process in order to jump-start the number of women elected to government.
I remember the previous discussion well - what was it, 10 or 15 years ago now? Oh, we had a good go at it, to the point that the federal Liberals did eventually bypass the nomination process to hand-pick female candidates in a few ridings.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s a vital discussion to have.
After all, what could be more vital to fair and democratic governance than political representation that mirrored the mix of the Canadian population? I’d love it if our politicians looked more like us on all fronts.
But like I said, enough years have gone by since then that I know how the story ends - right back here, with all of us talking about the same issues like none of it ever happened.
Our typical pattern is to toss the issue around for a few years and then forget all about it. A brief flurry of activity pops up the rate of female candidacy for one election, but efforts aren’t sustained enough to create genuine change.
Theories abound as to why female politicians are so scarce in Canada, particularly at the federal level. Take your pick of opinions: That it’s because the electorate doesn’t vote for them; or the political parties don’t support them; or that they hate the life; or are preoccupied with child-rearing.
Likely there’s some truth in all of those. But I think the bigger problem is the political system itself. It’s not only built to thwart any attempts to change it, but fewer and fewer Canadians are paying attention to begin with. If we actually want change, that has to end.
So if our country truly wanted to get more women involved in politics, the first step in my mind would be electoral reform. As B.C. already knows from dabbling with the concept, there are any number of voting systems around the world that yield more gender diversity than ours.
Strategies like fixing nomination meetings can be another way of getting at the problem. But they’re short-term fixes, and justifiably controversial. Unless we still want to be fussing about this in 2020, maybe it would be better to strive for more fundamental changes - ones that would increase the odds for any number of underrepresented groups.
Somewhere out there is a democratic electoral system that’s just right for us. And here’s a bonus: We already know a heck of a lot about the options, thanks to the brilliant work of the citizens’ commission on electoral reform in 2004.
But time’s a-wasting. We can’t afford to fritter it away on tired old 15-year-old arguments as to the rights and wrongs of leveraging women into politics.
Do we need more women in politics? Absolutely.
Had there been more women in politics from the start, I’m guessing it never would have been legal in Canada for a husband to rape his wife. Instead, it took until 1984 to make that happen.
And women obviously wouldn’t have been shut out of the voting process in Canada’s early years if we’d actually been part of it in the beginning. We’d likely have assumed control over our own bodies much sooner.
Wage inequities? Wouldn’t have happened. Nurses being fired if they chose to marry? Nope. Decades of problems with sexual harassment in the workplace? Probably not.
In defence of the existing political process, those changes did eventually come about. Just because men rule the world doesn’t mean that everything turns out badly.
But each victory is pretty hollow when you consider that all we’re trying to do is catch up to men. We started at the bottom and think it’s heavenly to be halfway up, when what we ought to be doing is claiming our place as equals. Enough with this wishful thinking that such transformation is possible within our current political and voting processes.
Women could, of course, continue to try to slug it out with the boys. Take it like a man. Look at the inroads that gays and ethnic minorities made into politics in the last couple of decades - what’s stopping women?
Clearly, something is. Gays and minorities fought hard for their gains, but at least they saw some. Women are still lost in the trenches. Despite decades of effort, we still account for just 20 to 25 per cent of provincial and federal elected seats, and are even rarer in cabinet.
Maybe that really is a sign that the female sex isn’t compatible with the rigours of the Canadian political scene. So let’s change the scene.

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