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Notley ran gutsy run-from-behind campaign anchored ideas

The Hill Times Online by Nancy Peckford 6 May 2015

The remarkable election victory led by NDP leader and now Premier-elect Rachel Notley is an accomplishment that most women in Canada are celebrating, quietly or otherwise, no matter where their party allegiances may lie.

Set aside for a moment that Ms. Notley defeated a 44-year-old PC dynasty that, while stumbling of late, many believed would be re-born under former federal minister Jim Prentice’s solid leadership. Or that Ms. Notley, the relative unknown leader of Alberta’s fourth party, would win Albertans’ hearts by championing policies that were widely believed to be antithetical to its residents—higher corporate taxes, a different approach to pipelines and bigger investments in the province’s social infrastructure.And, let’s not even consider the gaping disparity that Ms. Notley’s party had to overcome in terms of campaign dollars. Mr. Prentice’s capacity as a fundraiser became crystal clear when a public report in January showed that a total of 21 individuals and businesses had given $30,000 to Mr. Prentice’s leadership campaign alone, for a total haul of $2.6-million. The provincial party was not far behind leaving the NDP and smaller parties to rely heavily on smaller, individual donations. And, finally, recall the ill-fated and last ditched efforts from several leading corporate executives, all male who—fearing the worst as they saw that their long time allies on the brink of elimination—implored Albertans during a press conference to ‘use their heads’ at the ballot box.

Despite all of this, Rachel Notley and her team prevailed, running a gutsy, run-from-behind campaign with equal numbers of women and men that was anchored in ideas focused on facilitating meaningful change in a province that hasn’t seen much of it for several decades. In short, ideas matter. Leadership does too. And Albertans, like most of their counterparts in the rest of Canada, were desperate to have a real discussion about the way forward.

What this campaign wasn’t about was the fact that Alberta’s now premier-elect is a mother, with two teenagers, who worked outside of the home as a labour lawyer. Refreshingly, Ms. Notley’s parental status wasn’t much of a campaign issue enabling her to stay focused on the fresh ideas they were proposing for Albertans.  It’s a luxury not always afforded to female politicians.

Former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith had no such good fortune when in 2012, she was forced to address why, as a middle-aged married woman, she had no children. Former PC Leader Alison Redford came up against it too during the 2012 campaign.  Her status as a working mother of a teenage daughter was, like it or not, part of the campaign narrative.  Unfortunately, the tactic hinted at worse things to come when two years later, premier Redford was left to defend her choice to bring her daughter and a friend on the government plane for several domestic trips in the name of parental contact. A sin, so-called and so great, she would pay dearly for it months later.

Notably, in this campaign, it was Jim Prentice who, unwittingly, introduced an unintended gender dynamic that may have contributed to his downfall.  During the leaders debate, Mr. Prentice told Ms. Notley, with whom he was debating the merits of their competing economic policies that yes, math is hard and maybe she didn’t have it quite right.  Social media effectively blew up in response, with women leading the charge against a comment that, intended or otherwise, came across as patronizing, needless, and at worst, sexist.

Ms. Notley’s composure, engaging style and refreshing ideas in that debate was the turning point in a campaign that few thought was going anywhere interesting. Two weeks later, she was elected premier. And along with her are approximately 23 female NDP colleagues who will comprise nearly 45 per cent of the governing caucus, the highest percentage of any in Canada’s history. And why does all of this matter?

Canadians have witnessed the rise and fall of several female premiers in the last three years. While we know voters want far more women on the ballot, and will vote for them in spades, the political trajectory of a female leader in Canada has not been so easy or seamless.  Of course, politics is a rough and tumble game and no one expects that women should have it easier. But they shouldn’t have it harder either.

To that end, unfortunately, questions of appearance, motherhood, leadership style, and judgment have plagued three of Canada’s most recent female premiers.  Premiers Alison Redford in Alberta and Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador were both forced to resign in 2014, just months apart—having barely completed half of their terms and with majority mandates from voters.  Faltering communications styles, accusations of entitlement, a lack of loyalty from (largely) male colleagues were all part of the story for both.  And then former Quebec premier Pauline Marois, a top performer for the Parti Québécois of 30 years, went down in flames just months later after misjudging the populace’s appetite for two divisive policies, the charter of values and Quebec independence.  Only Premiers Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Christy Clark of British Columbia have endured, having earned hard won majority mandates and demonstrating more viable leadership qualities and better caucus and public support.  And, of course, until February, Albertans had the benefit of the very capable and steady leadership of the provincial opposition’s Danielle Smith until she crossed the floor in a devastating political move that would cost her her political career.

These hiccups have been hard to watch as organizations like Equal Voice, not to mention political parties, work to recruit more women.  Women who are compelled to run and would make excellent candidates often hesitate given what they see as the extraordinary and unrelenting scrutiny and the price of political error.  Some question the grueling schedules.

Many others, however, are far more preoccupied with whether they can truly make a difference in such a mercurial environment and if it’s worth the trouble of putting a career, family and one’s reputation on the line.  A study of the ambitions of some of Canada’s leading business women released by the Manning Institute in March echoed these concerns.

Regardless, there is no doubt that women across the political spectrum are heartened by Ms. Notley’s victory. The premier-elect ran an energetic, focused campaign based on ideas, integrity and a new vision for Albertans.  Gender was not the front story and nor should it have been.  And while there is no question that Ms. Notley’s honeymoon will end, her election and that of her 20 plus other female colleagues, ensuring near parity at the Cabinet table, will give many women considering their political futures real hope that their foray into politics can truly leverage their talent, their time and their ideas.

Nancy Peckford is National Spokesperson for Equal Voice