Every time I see a piece that presents the shockingly low numbers of women in politics in our country, I tense up a little. Not because the numbers are terrible – because let’s face it, they are – but because almost always, these tend to be quantitative lists trying to talk about a qualitative problem. Lo and behold, we have yet another of these in the Ottawa Citizen this morning, but there are a few figures in there that need to be unpacked a little more.
The one that really bothers me and deserves to be contextualized is the one percent change between number of women in this parliament and the previous one, and this is where the quantitative/qualitative aspect really comes into play. First of all, the House of Commons is larger in the current parliament by 30 MPs. This means that a one percent gain in a larger Commons means more women on an absolute numbers basis, and that matters. The other, more important fact, however, is the quality of the female MPs we elected this time around. In 2011, let’s face it – much of the increase came from the number of NDP MPs who were accidentally elected following the “Orange Wave” – candidates who hadn’t been properly nominated, had never been to their ridings, never campaigned in them, and were just names on a list that the party put there in order to ensure that they could max out their spending limits. When a wave of sentimentality overcame the Quebec electorate, they got elected. Much was made of the number of young women that were elected, but qualitatively, most of them were underwhelming MPs, whose only real skillset was in reading the scripts that were put in front of them and throwing tantrums in the media when they needed some attention. Most of them, fortunately, didn’t get elected again. That said, for the 2015 election, the Liberals put into place a system to seek out and encourage more women to seek the nomination and to support them in winning it. Qualitatively, you got better MPs who were not just names on lists, who proved they could fight and win both a nomination race and an election by doing the work of door-knocking and being engaged, and more of them wound up in the Commons. It’s a qualitative improvement that can grow further in the next election.
This is why suggestions about changing our electoral system to incorporate lists in order to get more women and minorities into the Commons frustrates me, because there is an implicit message that women and visible minority candidates can’t fight and win elections on an equal basis. I think that’s wrong, and targets the wrong problem because it ignores the complexities and realities of our nomination system and ways that it needs to be improved – such as how the Liberals started doing – and how that changes the game on the ground. The problems in our system when it comes to getting women elected are cultural, not mechanical. Simply changing the electoral system to artificially inflate the numbers of women won’t solve the underlying problems, but merely mask them. We should remember that every time these quantitative lists are released.