Quality of female political candidates trumps quantity

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion pledged in December to increase the number of female Liberal candidates in the next federal election to 33 per cent and hopefully increase the number of female MPs.

Gerard Kennedy, Dion’s special advisor on election readiness, was quoted as saying that, with the possibility of a spring election, the Liberals don’t have the luxury of time for a lengthy recruitment drive. Thus, drastic measures might be necessary to have good female representation among Liberal candidates.

Green-light committees organized to run the party’s nomination process have been empowered to meet the 33-per cent goal. The committees can approve or reject nomination papers. If necessary, the committee can bar men from running for nominations in some ridings to boost female participation.

Dion, as Liberal leader, retains the power to appoint female candidates, bypassing the nomination process, though he wants to use this power sparingly.

His pledge is controversial to say the least, touching a nerve by raising the spectre of affirmative action.

Immediately it’s assumed unqualified women will be appointed as candidates over more qualified men. Some even argue these measures are detrimental since they undermine women’s hard work to compete with men based on their qualifications.

The NDP has a good approach; it will freeze the nomination process until it’s clear every effort has been made to find strong female candidates. It’s not surprising the NDP has the highest percentage of female MPs at 41 per cent.

As a politically active female, it saddens me to think about which female MPs could serve as role models for young women; I find very few.

Belinda Stronach, our favourite floor-crossing female Liberal MP, could be one example but, sadly, she often becomes a punching bag for the media and the opposition.

Sheila Copps, a long-time Liberal MP, was embarrassed in the 2004 Liberal leadership race and Kim Campbell was both the first female prime minister and the prime minister with the shortest term. Martha Hall-Findley, a recent Liberal leadership candidate, wasn’t taken as seriously as her male competitors.

The House of Commons is still an old boys’ club. Women make up 20.7 per cent of the 308 MPs in current Commons, placing Canada behind Singapore at 46th in the world.

Female representation is vital in the House of Commons. It’s the one place where the composition should be representative of the Canadian population.

Due to women’s traditional exclusion from politics, extreme measures might seem appropriate or necessary. Still, I can’t help but feel Dion’s goal, although admirable, is misguided.

Even if he does increase the number of female candidates, it doesn’t mean the number of female MPs will increase.

To change the House of Commons’ makeup, parties should take the task of increasing female representation seriously. To do this they must increase the number of viable candidates who can win rather than simply plopping women into ridings.

Additionally, women hold as much responsibility for changing the House’s composition; more women must begin considering politics a viable career option to effect meaningful change.

If political parties encourage potential female candidates earlier and help them gain experience and credibility, we’ll begin seeing more women in the House.

If they simply plant female candidates in ridings without considering the possibility of victory, they do a greater disservice to women.

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