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Private member’s bill has the potential to change the rules of the political game

The Hill Times by Nancy Peckford, Nicole Foster and Grace Lore 9 May 2016.

Today, the Private Member’s Bill C-237, the Candidate Gender Equity Act, drafted by NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, will be debated in the House of Commons. It’s a provocative Bill in a country that has never invoked any structural measures to ensure more women stand for office. At its core, the proposed Bill would change the way in which registered political parties are reimbursed for a significant portion of their campaign expenses. Many Canadians don’t realize that, in addition to a generous tax credit for individual contributions to federal political parties, parties are also reimbursed for up to half of eligible campaign expenditures.

Stewart’s Bill would mandate that only those parties who run a minimum of 45 percent women would be eligible for the full reimbursement. Parties that run fewer than 45 percent women would be penalized. For every percentage point below forty-five, the party in question would receive an increasingly smaller subsidy, again to a limit. The point, of course, is to hit political parties where some argue it will hurt the most – money. Currently, the Canada Elections Act does not care if a party runs one percent women or 100 percent women. There is no analysis and no differentiation. In fact, Elections Canada does not even require political parties to indicate the gender of candidates when submitting their names. In this past election, Equal Voice used publicly available data to verify the gender of every candidate from the major five parties.

Kennedy’s idea to use public funds as a lever is not a new one in western democracies. France, Portugal, and Ireland have all introduced some sort of financial penalty to compel parties to field more women and, ultimately, give voters far more choice. Each of these countries, among others, has gone down this path because of significant frustration and external pressure among citizen groups to expedite the painfully slow pace at which women’s elected representation is progressing.

Despite this, the success has been somewhat mixed. In France, while the percentage of nationally elected women has risen from 11 percent to 26 percent, most major parties have chosen to pay the fine instead of ensuring half of their candidates are women. In Ireland, where a similar law was recently enacted, women’s representation is now at 22 percent – from 16 percent.

In Canada, with just 26 percent women MPs in the House of Commons, it’s clear that far more women need to seek and secure party nominations if we are to break 30 percent or beyond. Only 32 percent of federal candidates for the dominant five parties were women in this past federal election. This meant that 97 ridings had no women on the ballot for the major three parties, and in 57 ridings, there were no women on the ballot for the dominant five (which includes the GPC and BQ).

Given these numbers, it will take 45 years alone to achieve parity on the federal ballot in Canada, and 90 years to achieve parity in the House. It’s a stunning number, 90 years, and it should serve as a wake-up call. Stewart’s motivation to implement more proactive measures is legitimate – and it’s already inspired robust debate. And while Stewart’s Bill doesn’t address the nomination process per se, EV is well aware that it is the primary barrier and opportunity to getting more women on the ballot.

Of course, EV recognizes that each party has its own unique system and set of rules as to how it nominates its candidates – each with its own quirks, strengths and weaknesses. By changing the framework for electoral financing, it may give political parties the push they need to consider – in a more concerted fashion – these crucial processes in terms of the outcomes they produce.

Consequently, Stewart’s Bill is an exciting opportunity to engage Parliamentarians as they consider innovative mechanisms that might incent all political parties to become invested in gender parity when it comes to the ballot. No doubt, by virtue of the fact that this Bill has the potential to change the rules of the political game, it will be hotly debated as each party assesses its impact. Not surprisingly, parties will go beyond the principle of the bill as they anticipate the critical electoral impacts.

As a multi-partisan organization (as opposed to a non-partisan one), Equal Voice is experiencing a vociferous internal debate on how to laud the merits of a measure like this while also acknowledging its limits. EV understands the real concerns about the impact that changes to electoral financing could have on certain parties over others. Meanwhile, as EV’s mandate is focused on the objective of electing more women, we are wholly committed to moving the yardstick forward. However, it must be done in a way that ensures that every women who stands for office knows she’s gotten there for the important skills and perspective she brings to the table. No woman wants to feel like a number.

Not surprisingly, the debate within a multi-partisan forum like Equal Voice is not unlike that which will take place in the House of Commons this week. Regardless, EV welcomes the conversation as to how electoral financing, among many other initiatives, could impact parties in their broader efforts to encourage more women to seek a nomination. Women can’t be elected if they are not on the ballot. And perhaps exploring incentives in political financing will motivate all parties to consider how they might truly benefit – financially and otherwise – from ensuring prospective women candidates are recruited to the same degree as their male counterparts.

Women got the right to vote 100 years ago. Clearly, it shouldn’t take another century for women to have an equal voice.

by Nancy Peckford, Nicole Foster and Grace Lore
for Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada