Over the weekend, as part of International Women’s Day, the Liberal Party launched a social media campaign designed to encourage more women to run in the next election. Using the Twitter hashtag #InviteHerToRun, the party prompted people to approach women leaders in their community and motivate them to run for a Liberal nomination, while the party would walk them through the basics of seeking said nomination.
Such an initiative was not just about International Women’s Day, but rather about Justin Trudeau’s commitment not to set quotas for representation among candidates, nor to appoint candidates for nominations heading into the next election. During his leadership, he said that the push for more diverse representation needs to come from the grassroots level, and this particular social media campaign was a fulfilment of that belief – a way of encouraging the grassroots membership to find more women candidates from their area, and to get them engaged in that process.
The issue of how to get more women into politics is a much discussed one, and no one party has any particular answer to it. The Conservatives, for instance, don’t apply any quotas or incentives, but can quite properly boast that any woman that does win a nomination and subsequent election under their banner has done it under her own merits and is not the product of a quota, list, or other means that would make her a token or lesser candidate than any of her male counterparts. Ask any female Conservative MP, and they will proudly tell you that they got no special treatment when it came to getting elected, the implication being that those women running for other parties did.
The NDP, meanwhile, have a standing rule that all nominations are open, but that a candidate from an “equity-seeking group” (meaning anyone other than an able-bodied white middle-aged heterosexual male) needs to be present on the ticket before a nomination can be held. And sometimes it works, given that they have tended to have a higher proportion of female MPs elected, though until the 2011 election, their other forms of diversity were noticeably lacking. As well, it should be noted that sometimes, their rules around finding an equity-seeking candidate have been bent in order to get a preferred candidate in place (unless you’re telling me that nowhere in the riding of Dartmouth-Cole Harbour could a candidate from an equity-seeking group be found to contest the nomination against Robert Chisholm, whose nomination was voted on unopposed).
The Liberals, however, have had a much more mixed bag when it comes to trying to get more women elected. Over the past several election cycles, they have largely opted for to use the leader’s ability to appoint candidates in ridings – bypassing the nomination process – in order to reach a threshold of one third of candidates running being women. That hasn’t proven as successful of a tactic, and in some cases the riding rebelling against someone they viewed as a parachute candidate, as witnessed in the by-election for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River in 2008, where David Orchard clashed with the party over the appointment of Joan Beatty, and they lost the riding to the Conservatives.
Amidst the #InviteHerToRun tweets, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel made the point that it wasn’t enough to just invite more women to run, but rather “go sell memberships with her in a riding her choice of party can win,” and adding that memberships win nominations. While it was a slightly shameless plug for her own nomination race as part of the riding redistribution process, she made an essential point – that it’s not just putting your name forward, but that process of selling memberships and engaging the grassroots members to get past the hurdle of actually winning the nomination race. It’s a tough process that many who’ve done it will tell you are worse than the election itself, but it does turn out to be a kind of trial by fire that can galvanize a candidate.
Rempel made another important point in that tweet – if we want more women in Parliament, they need to run in a riding that the party can win. There is a long and storied history of parties getting their numbers of women or other minority candidates up by running them in ridings that are largely unwinnable. While this has given parties the ability to say that they’re running more women and minority candidates, some parties citing numbers of up to a third of candidates as women in the past couple of election cycles, it has rarely translated into a marked increase in women holding seats in the Commons.
Where a campaign like #InviteHerToRun fits into the results of that Samara Canada study on Canadians’ expectations of political parties that was released a couple of weeks ago, where Canadians didn’t feel like the parties were reaching out to them, is that it places the onus back onto the grassroots to help find the candidates they want and to get them engaged into the process. It helps to remind the party’s grassroots membership that they have an ownership over the candidates that get nominated rather than it being a process that is top-down and driven by the leader’s office, where hand-picked candidates wind up being seen more as parachute candidates, or in the case of some women and minorities, token appointments designed to better their diversity credentials.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still structural barriers against women and minorities with getting into politics, both in terms of access to capital and attracting donors to campaigns, or the challenges inherent with younger women or those with young families who have very real concerns about their work-life balance. If parties are to play a role in getting more women to run, then perhaps they are best positioned to help lower those barriers using what levers they can, rather than simply trying to put them on the ballot for the sake of putting them on the ballot.
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