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women running federal election 2004

by Rosemary Spiers | April 6, 2004

More than eight decades after women won the right to vote in Canada, men still run the country.

At one time, the New Democratic Party (NDP) was circulating a great button “A Woman's Place is in the House.” But today, in 2004, the House of Commons is still only 21% female. In legislatures, and on municipal councils, women make up only about a fifth of those elected to office, and lately the number is dropping.

In 2003, the United Nations called on Canada to do something about our ranking – 36th in the world according to the number of women elected nationally.

We calculate it will take four more generations – your great-great-granddaughters might be around to see gender equality in our political institutions.

Why are men still so firmly in charge of all our governments?

Here are two possible answers:

  1. 0ur voting system. It was invented for the 19th century, not for an era of supposed equality.
  2. Our political parties. They’ve been men’s clubs so long they just don’t “get it” about opening their doors, not only to women, but also minority groups, minority opinions, and Canadians of lesser means.

The Law Commission of Canada, headed by Nathalie des Rosiers, produced an exciting report in 2004 calling for electoral reforms that would include “an element of proportional representation [PR].” One result, says des Rosiers, should be more women elected. Let’s look at how we vote now, and how des Rosiers would like us voting in future.

First, imagine yourself standing in a ballot box getting ready to cast your vote later this year. You simply unfold your ballot, mark off one choice on a list of candidates for the riding, fold it again and drop it in the box.

This is the “First Past the Post” system because, as in horse racing, the winner just has to get a nose past the others. The winning candidate doesn't need 50%, just more votes than the other contestants.

The usual result is governments with strong majorities, even though more than half of Canadians voted for other parties. The winning party simply got more candidates to first place in most ridings, winning big with perhaps only 38 or 40% of the popular vote.

This is a highly competitive, adversarial system, in which winner takes all. It’s a brawling style many women don’t like, so they hesitate to take the plunge. Those who do stand may be rejected at the entry point of politics – getting nominated in the constituency – by riding associations which time and again assume the best contender is still a white male professional with two children.

So, when you walk into the ballot box this year, chances are you won’t be offered the choice of a woman, or a candidate from another under-represented group, at least not by your preferred party.

But, for future elections, the Law Commission is recommending a “mixed” voting system. Two-thirds of MPs would still be locally elected in ridings. The remaining third would be elected from lists of candidates put forward by the parties in each province and territory.

Drawing up the lists, with the public watching, would encourage the parties to offer more balance, and to include women and minority group candidates. They might even put some women at the top!

Now, you’d get a very different ballot, and TWO votes. First, you’d vote for your choice of local candidate, perhaps irrespective of party. Second, you’d vote for the party list you think best represents you.

When all the votes are cast, electoral officers will allocate the seats according to each party’s total popular vote. First they’ll allot the constituency seats each party won, then “top up” with winning candidates from the parties’ provincial and territorial lists.

The overall aim is a fairer reflection of the actual makeup of the population, and of the popular will. Inflated majority governments based on less than half of the popular vote wouldn’t be possible anymore. Much more likely would be a close result, or a minority government. Parties would have to co-operate, and a House in which representatives of different political factions work together would be more attractive to aspiring women.

Still, the Law Commission admits that “an element” of PR probably isn’t enough to achieve gender parity. So, after looking at the gains made by women in other countries, the Commission is also recommending that Parliament should instruct the parties to voluntarily adopt measures to promote equal representation.

    These include:
  • better efforts to recruit women and minorities,
  • parity for women on provincial lists,
  • quotas for the number of women to be nominated in ridings,
  • financial support for women candidates and
  • financial incentives for parties that elect more women.

The parties would be required to report to Parliament on their success in electing more women, and an all-party Parliamentary committee would review the results.

Together with voting reform, voluntarily adopted targets for electing women just might work.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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