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Staying power difficult for women in politics, SACPA told

The Lethbridge Herald with Melanee Thomas 10 May 2019

Women have served as premier in Canada’s most populous provinces in recent years. But none have been re-elected to a second term.

Reasons for their demise haven’t always been easy to pin down, a Lethbridge audience was told.

With a stumbling economy, it’s not hard to understand why Albertans voted to change their government this spring. They returned the Conservatives, political scientist Melanee Thomas observed because jobs and the economy became the focus of the campaign.

“Incumbent parties get punished harshly” in difficult times, she told the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs.

In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals recently suffered the same fate, based on economic ills in that province.

But some of those once-and-gone situations defy easy analysis, the University of Calgary professor admitted. They seem to fly in the face of Canadians’ perceptions.

Thomas said a recent study found 80 per cent of Canadians who responded said the gender, race or other attributes aren’t a deciding factor at election time. But on the other hand, she said, some people in that remaining 20 per cent may hold rigid, traditional views on the roles allowed for women.

It’s possibly people in that group, audience members noted, who used the social media to attack and personally threaten women including Lethbridge MLA Shannon Phillips and Premier Rachel Notley over the last four years.

In response to the online abuse hurled at politicians in general, Thomas said, 95 per cent of men and 98 per cent of Canadian women now say they wouldn’t consider running for public office.

Looking back to the first woman named premier in Canada – Rita Johnston for Social Credit, 28 years ago in British Columbia – Thomas observed that many who followed were selected when the party in power was in crisis or decline – and was defeated during the next election.

Overseas, she added, Margaret Thatcher became leader after her Conservatives had lost two elections, while Angela Merkel remained her party’s only viable choice when most of the male contenders faced criminal charges.

While those British and German leaders enjoyed continued success – not so in Canada.

But desperate times may explain only about half of Canada’s one-term losses, Thomas said.

“It’s not a very satisfying conclusion,” she admitted.

Just the same, Thomas pointed to signs of improvement. More women are being elected at the federal and provincial levels.

And many women will get involved at the constituency level, to help nominate or elect a friend or someone they know.

But hope for gender equality – required by law in some nations – is tempered by some political parties’ candidate nomination policies. Parties may find greater success in today’s multicultural world, she suggested, if they look further than white males when selecting a candidate.

“Reflect your neighbourhood” by nominating people “who look like your community.”