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Status of Women debate a historic first for N.L.

in To Each Their Own by

CBC’s Debbie Cooper called it a historic first for Newfoundland and Labrador. And while it revealed the stark gaps that characterize this province’s poor state of gender equality, it certainly proved the most momentous of the debates held in this election thus far.

It was a stark contrast to the debate on the economy held on Oct. 14 at Memorial University. That debate was organized by the Centre for Applied Research in Economics (CARE), a unit comprised of three dour white men who set up a debate hosted by an iconic male radio talk show host. A more biased set-up could hardly be imagined. The St. John’s Status of Women debate, by contrast, was hosted by one of the country’s premiere female news anchors and facilitated by a panel of three of the province’s notable female journalists: Linda Swain and Zaren Healey White from VOCM, and The Telegram’s Ashley Fitzpatrick.

The structure of the debate reflected the type of collaborative politics the province’s feminists are known for. There are eight Status of Women Councils across the province, and they each contributed a question pertaining to a different area of research or policy affecting women. And the four female journalists who facilitated the panel did a superb job of holding the politicians’ feet to the fire, with follow-up questions and demands for clarification that ensured the leaders were forced to answer as substantively as possible.

Women in government

The questions covered a broad swath of issues. The first focused on women in government: What would each of the parties do to ensure more women were represented in government?

All three leaders fell over themselves emphasizing how underrepresented women are in government. Liberal leader Dwight Ball vaguely promised to put “initiatives” in place. He said not everyone wants to be on the ballot as a candidate (but isn’t that the problem, really?) and spoke about encouraging women’s involvement in district associations. Well, yes, but behind the scenes isn’t good enough — that’s the whole point. Ball also cited Liberal Party forums and round tables on the topic of women in leadership; a strong and clear commitment to…more talk.

Progressive Conservative Premier Paul Davis also offered some gems of glaring wisdom—“challenges exist” and “politics is tough” among them—while rattling off minor statistical improvements in gender representation among Deputy Ministers and Assistant Deputy Ministers. Oddly he also cited improvements in gender representation at the municipal level, while ignoring the fact that the province’s largest municipality—St. John’s—is an object of national ridicule for having zero women on city council. A demonstration, perhaps, of how easy it is to get carried away by statistics and miss the forest for the trees. He spoke about recently attending the NL Organization of Women Entrepreneurs awards banquet and of all the “outstanding” female talent he saw there. A privileged talent pool, to be sure.

NDP leader Earle McCurdy offered a more concrete assessment of the barriers facing women, and which he felt impedes candidate recruitment: lack of childcare, lack of eldercare, pay inequity. He offered the suggestion that some of the recently cut seats from the House of Assembly could be reinstated as designated seats to introduce some measure of gender parity.

Childcare

On the issue of childcare, they were asked how they would provide quality affordable childcare for the province. Davis offered a “consultative process,” citing increased spending on childcare under the PC government in recent years. Ball offered anecdotes and more vague folksy wisdom: “It’s going to be different solutions for different parts of the province.” He flagged the importance of increased funding for Early Childhood Educators, a good move. McCurdy meanwhile reiterated the NDP commitment to a universal, accessible, affordable childcare program. He also criticized the fact most of the province’s childcare facilities are privatized.

The debate got lively: Ball threw out his first JT reference of the evening (the fact it didn’t happen till the second question no doubt surprised the betting pool), while Davis retreated into Conservative-speak, referencing “a growing suite of products and services” (?!) as well as enhanced subsidies for childcare workers and a significant increase in childcare spaces since the PC’s took office in 2003.

Violence against women

Violence was the next topic. Following a litany of grim statistics from Debbie Cooper, the leaders were asked how they would develop and implement a province-wide plan to eliminate violence against women.

McCurdy called for improved educational programming in schools as well as enhanced funding for the people and organizations that tackle violence and support victims. Ball went down the road of mental health, calling for better education, a new Waterford Hospital, and more guidance counsellors. He also criticized the PCs’ closure of the Family Violence Intervention Court. Davis, on the defensive from Ball, offered a bizarre response about the need for better use of technology to reach more people.

Davis also offered “memories of my own experience” as a police officer sitting with victims in their living rooms at 3 a.m. — an endearing personal touch, but hardly one that offers insight; he was the well-paid man with a gun, not the woman experiencing violence. McCurdy pointedly observed that Davis might have sat up late at night with victims of violence, but he also sat in cabinet while the Family Violence Court was being shut down.

VOCM’s Zaren Healey White took the debate in an interesting direction by asking the leaders how they would tackle intersectional violence, such as that experienced by Indigenous and trans women. Notably—and disgracefully—not a single leader commented on violence against trans women. The leaders were quick to affirm the importance of tackling violence against Indigenous women, reiterating the need for education. Davis noted the province’s support for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Health care

The next question asked the leaders how they would increase comprehensive women-based health coverage in the province. Davis responded obscurely, asserting that we are all consumers of health care (tell us something we don’t know, and preferably without the free market jingo). He bemoaned that health care dollars don’t work as well as they should (an ill-timed pitch for more privatization, perhaps?) and called for a “team approach,” whatever in the world that means.

McCurdy pushed the idea of mobile health clinics and community-based healthcare, while Ball emphasized his own experience in the health care field (running privatized care homes, one should note) and made the important observation that most front-line health care workers are women, and their working conditions should be improved (not through privatization, they won’t be).

VOCM’s Linda Swain asked the leaders to address more specifically the problem of recruitment and retention of health care workers. Davis praised the province’s record on hip and knee replacement surgery (wtf?!), Ball emphasized the need to support seniors and elderly widows by promoting community-based care that will keep them in their homes (not through privatization, it won’t!), while McCurdy urged an expansion of midwifery in the province.

When Debbie Cooper asked Davis to account for his government’s slow movement on proposals to expand and promote midwifery, Davis replied with an elusive “there are a variety of views on it,” eliciting the first wave of indrawn breaths and boos of the evening. Ball quickly leapt forward as the champion of free-market midwifery: “Clients deserve the choice!” he proclaimed. Tommy Douglas was doubtlessly rolling in his grave, Milton Friedman fist-pumping from his own grave’s general direction.

Sex education

Noting that several provinces have recently overhauled their curricula, Ashley Fitzpatrick asked how each of the leaders would work to revise the school curriculum at all levels to include education on healthy relationships and consent.

McCurdy awkwardly responded in the affirmative, emphasizing the need to teach children “It’s not cool to be violent to people” (psst: yes, but it’s also not cool to frame it that way, really). Davis also committed to overhauling the curriculum: “Absolutely. Habits are formed in early years,” he proclaimed, before taking a bizarre turn and praising his government’s partnership with Canadian Tire to promote healthy living. Ball trumpeted his party’s commitment to a task force on educational outcomes. Sex ed, he said, would be one of those outcomes.

McCurdy decided to apply a bit of free market logic (not cool, my man, not cool): “What’s the cost to the province?” he asked, of sex assaults, hospitals, court cases. What’s the cost to the victims, and to society, one might more rightly worry. Davis said we need to teach people to resolve disputes without violence. Thanks for that bit of wisdom, Mr. Premier.

Fitzpatrick wasn’t satisfied with their answers, so asked whether they would make a concrete commitment to changing school curricula in the manner of Ontario and other provinces. Davis: “Absolutely.” McCurdy also committed, while laudably linking education to the need to fight homophobia and transphobia. Ball went on the attack against Davis, criticizing the PCs for suppressing the sexual exploitation report which was only recently released thanks to repeated access to information requests.

Davis noted that so much time had elapsed while his government was suppressing it that it was now dated, and four or five years old. We need a new study, he proclaimed! Fitzpatrick asked him where his government was on that new study, and Davis admitted he wasn’t entirely sure. McCurdy offered his zinger of the evening, noting that the redacted report had “more black-outs than the city of London in World War II.”

Economic (in)equality

“What would you do to ensure women are paid equally for work of equal value?” asked VOCM’s Zaren Healy White. Ball emphasized how great he thought women were. “I just can’t believe that question is still out there in society!” he bemoaned. Unfortunately he didn’t have much idea what to do about it, although he did highlight the significant problem with underpaid childcare workers.

Davis also professed shock at the state of affairs. “This is a serious concern, a serious matter,” he too bemoaned, shaking his head. He said he’d like to take on each case of inequity on his own (awwww!). He noted the problems were particularly bad for resource-based provinces. “It shouldn’t be that way!” he summed up, without really addressing why his government hasn’t done anything about it.

McCurdy offered more concrete measures: a boost in the minimum wage, and a government tendering process that would take into account the contracting employer’s commitment and record on equity. His commitments produced more cheers (and glares from Debbie Cooper, who had warned the live studio audience against cheering). Ball, not to be outdone, promised an annual status of women conference, where successful women could network and share what made them successful. Davis committed to a pay equity policy.

Ball and McCurdy got into a tiff about McCurdy’s record on promoting gender equity in the Fishery, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FFAW). McCurdy defended his record, and fired back that it’s not good enough to say they need more women — they need concrete solutions like a legislated pay equity policy.

Poverty

Economic equality is tied to poverty, and that was the focus of the next question. “What measures will you put in place to alleviate women’s poverty in this province?” the leaders were asked.

McCurdy said they needed to look at the root causes of poverty: “Pay now, or pay later,” he warned, noting that the cost of poverty is a high one for society as a whole. He then bashed Muskrat Falls for adding to our energy bills. Davis cited the PC government’s strong focus on poverty reduction, which elicited some cheers from the audience. Overly confident, he went down a hyper-neoliberal path, suggesting the point of anti-poverty initiatives were “to help a person transform from being reliant on the social programs and the state.” More fist-pumps from Margaret Thatcher’s grave.

Ball bashed the recent HST hike and cited some of the province’s atrocious poverty stats. He threw in a JT reference, calling for more affordable housing. McCurdy dismissed the use of tax breaks as irrelevant for those many women who don’t even earn enough to pay taxes. He again pushed for a minimum wage increase. Davis, oblivious to McCurdy’s argument, boasted about his government’s low tax rates.

Funding for women’s organizations

On to a question on funding, and how each party would work to provide sustainable funding to women’s organizations in the province.

McCurdy praised the work of the province’s women’s organizations, and committed to more funding, including multi-year funding so organizations would be able to do things other than lobby for funding. Ball also passionately committed to long-term funding. Davis made a comment about the need for increased core funding to the groups. Debbie Cooper zeroed in: was he committing to it? “We’re committing to it, but need to look at the best way to do it,” replied Davis, evasively.

McCurdy went on the attack: single-year funding stifles advocacy, he charged, since groups whose funding is constantly up for question are hesitant to do their job in holding government (which funds them) accountable. Ball agreed: if you want to bring about democratic change, he said, you have to encourage advocacy. And you don’t do that by putting a strangle-hold on an organization’s funding, he concluded. A-men.

Justice

The final question tackled justice. “How will your government address the concerns of victims over wait times?” they were asked. Davis championed his government’s Violence Prevention Initiative, and started waxing forth again about the wonders of technology. McCurdy called for transition houses and more financial support for those who look after the victims.

The men might be starting to learn

A debate such as this could give the viewer equal cause for despair or hope.

The NDP’s Earle McCurdy was the clear outlier and leader when it came to concrete policy proposals. He had some clear policy goals that he reiterated under several of the questions—boosting the minimum wage, for instance—as well as some interesting and outside-the-box (for this province) ideas, like gender parity seats in the legislature, and use of government tendering processes to promote greater equity.

But after a while the leaders’ responses became almost predictable, assuming the form of something like “Women are wonderful. Women are great. There need to be more women in [politics / high-paying jobs / health care / resource development / you name it]. We need to do more. Gawd, we need to do more.”

 Awareness is an important step, as is the need to articulate a party response to the problems.

Everyone demonstrated a clear sense of what the problems are. What was less evident, is what they concretely intend to do about it. Still, it was—as has been pointed out—a historic first for this province. And let’s hope it’s not the last.

While each of the party leaders revealed a strong familiarity with most of the issues and an awareness of the problems, what was less apparent was their commitment to real change. But awareness is an important step, as is the need to articulate a party response to the problems.

Many of the responses were vague, or couched in nonsensical hyper-capitalist jingo. But there were also the beginnings of some good ideas. Commitments by all three parties to overhaul the K-12 curriculum is welcome, as is their universal commitment to expanding funding for the province’s feminist organizations and making it multi-year for greater stability and to promote advocacy.

McCurdy’s demand for a minimum wage increase, while nothing new, is a key one. His newer ideas — some form of gender designated seats in the legislature, and a tendering process that takes equity into account — are excellent ones.

Ball’s commitments around improving working conditions for early childhood educators and front-line health workers are also important, and ones the public will no doubt be holding him to should his party form government.

And as Debbie Cooper pointed out, even having an all-leaders’ debate on issues affecting women showed this province as outpacing the recent federal election. The four female journalists who put this together, and the St. John’s Status of Women Council which organized to make it happen, were the real champions of the evening. While the debate demonstrated how much our politicians have to learn about the issues (and solutions), it began the process of making them learn. And it demonstrated that the province’s feminists and activists are the real champions of this year’s election.

All three parties would do well to bear that in mind, no matter which of them forms government.

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