Patriarchy, petroleum, and… mmm… pigs…

What exactly qualifies an individual to enter politics? To sit on a board?

Q: What do a janitor, bartender and toymaker have in common?**

A: They’re all qualified to be president of the U.S.!

Whaaat? Not funny?

Well neither is the recent furor over Elizabeth Matthews’ (non-)appointment to the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) last month.

For those who weren’t paying attention: the provincial Progressive Conservative government appointed her to fill a vacant spot on the seven-person board in December. The provincial Liberals and NDP cried out “patronage!” since she was Communications Director under former Premier Danny Williams. They said she didn’t have the right qualifications (not being an oil tycoon, I suppose). After they yelled and screamed enough, she declined the position.

Well, fine enough. Like the loyal Opposition said, we need to make sure appointments to important boards have the “qualifications,” right? Lots of experience in… offshore petroleum, right? I mean, just look at the current Board members. There’s a former labour leader. A fish plant owner. The owner of The Wilds Golf Course and Resort.

Looking for the qualified…

OK, bad example. Let’s look a bit further afield. Federally, there must be some people with jobs for which they are qualified.

Jason Kenney? He dropped out of university, which qualified him to become executive assistant to the Saskatchewan Liberal party leader. Which in turn qualified him to become CEO of the Canadian Taxpayers Association, which in turn qualified him to become Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism (perhaps it was his volunteer stint as director for the Catholic Civil Rights League, defending Catholics from non-Catholics).

Rob Ford… dropped out, and went to work with his family’s printing business. Which qualified him to become… mayor of Toronto.

Bruce Carson? A federal bureaucrat who’s been in the news lately, he’s a former lawyer, disbarred for stealing money from clients. This qualified him to be appointed by the federal Conservatives as chair of a commission addressing First Nations land claims. This in turn clearly qualified him to be appointed director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment (advising the prime minister on how to make the oil sands sound nice).

Oh! I know. Rob Ford. He got off to a relevant start, heading off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to study political science at Carleton. Only then he dropped out, and went to work with his family’s printing business. Which qualified him to become… mayor of Toronto.

Wait! Got it. Brian Tobin. He knew what he was at. Went to MUN to study political science, and then… dropped out. Which qualified him to become a TV news announcer. Which qualified him to become federal Minister of Fisheries.

There must be somebody in politics who finished their degrees!? Joey? Joey Smallwood? Well, OK, we didn’t have degrees in the province back then so we’ll let him off the hook. After all, he was a radio announcer and a pig farmer. Clearly, first-rate material for premier.

Still looking…

Well, let’s move outside of politics. How about the Board of Eastern Health? I mean, there must be lots of health professionals, right?

Let’s see now… OK, there’s a teacher. And an engineer. And the owner of The Wilds Golf Course and Resort (hunh? he’s everywhere!). And a teacher… and another teacher. And a teacher. In fact, out of 11 members, only two have health-related expertise (three, if you include a background in nutrition).

Then there’s former premier Brian Peckford, whose stint as premier clearly gave him the expertise to qualify for his recent appointment as Chair of the Federal Diabetes Policy Expert Review Panel.

There is, if you hadn’t noticed, a point being made here. You might argue that all those people have well-honed skills in other areas that they can adapt to the task at hand. If they don’t have direct training in the field, they’ve got equivalent experience. They’ve shown they’re hard-working and intelligent and that’s the most important qualification.

And you’d be right.

So why is it we didn’t apply that same standard with Elizabeth Matthews?

Women face additional public scrutiny

Sylvia Bashevkin, professor at the University of Toronto, in a recent book described this as the “women plus power equals discomfort” equation. It doesn’t mean that women are excluded from positions of power. It means when they are put forward for those positions, they are scrutizined and criticized in ways that men rarely are, and it is this which often deters or excludes them.

Bashevkin states most equality gains in this country happened prior to 1993, when women from the federal Liberals, NDP and PCs worked together in all-party forums to make progress. When the right-wing Reform Party appeared in the mid-1990s and took over the Conservatives, they refused to allow their women members to cooperate with other parties, and equality in this country has been on a downhill slide ever since.

Newfoundland and Labrador ranks lowest among the provinces for women’s top corporate representation.

Business commentator Halle Tesco addressed this phenomenon in a recent Forbes column where she noted “individuals in high-powered jobs are judged more harshly… when their job is not normally associated with their gender.” She cited Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll, who conducted a study comparing individuals in positions of power. “What did they find? When the protagonist was the non-stereotypical gender (think female police chief), they were judged more harshly. “The volunteers saw them as less competent and deserving of less status,” notes the paper.”

And it’s a problem. Catalyst – an organization monitoring women in business in North America – reports that although women are half the labour force, they represent only 17 per cent of senior officers, 14 per cent of board directors, and 6.2 per cent of top earners in the top 500 companies. And Newfoundland and Labrador ranks lowest among the provinces for women’s top corporate representation.

Big picture, people. In a world of male college drop-outs and golf resort owners, how is an educated woman with years of successful experience at the most complex top levels of government somehow not qualified for a public position?

Lessons to learn

I’m not accusing the Liberals and NDP of being sexist. This is the first province to have all major parties headed by women, and it’s a wonderful accomplishment.

But it’s important we not forget that what gains we have made have been made because women – and men – worked across party lines to strengthen society and promote equality. The role of opposition parties is not merely to oppose – but to ensure balanced governance. Unfortunately, in today’s increasingly partisan world, more and more politicians are losing sight of that, and focusing on winning cheap partisan shots instead of working together for gains that benefit society as a whole.

Matthews would have been the only woman on an all-male board. She was able to survive years in an unpredictable government, gaining expertise in a wide range of areas. Unlike many of our notable male politicians, she even finished university. Do we really need another “industry partner,” as the opposition called for? Call me a raving communist, but I think a regulatory body enforcing safety and the equal distribution of provincial benefits would be better served by somebody who’s not personally profiting from the industry.

Bad things don’t happen because people just wake up one day and decide to be sexist. They happen more often because people do not realize the impact of their actions.

The right lesson is that equality requires cooperation, and next time let’s look beyond our own petty agendas and focus on the big picture.

I’m no PC. I’ve voted Opposition more often than I’ve ever voted PC. But it is not something for us to be proud of that we allowed the lure of cheap party victories to lose us a highly qualified woman who could have performed a role of vital benefit to this province. Indeed, the fact she stepped down, rather than get embroiled in a sleazy partisan tangle, shows just what a high calibre person we lost.

What lesson is there to be learned from all this? Well, if you plan a career in politics, you’d better drop out of college as quickly as humanly possible. Getting disbarred doesn’t seem to be a bad idea, and… oh right, pig farming for the win!

But those would be the wrong lessons. The right lesson is that equality requires cooperation, and next time let’s look beyond our own petty agendas and focus on the big picture.

Yes, patronage is a vile pox upon our democratic regime which must be eradicated. But you know what I hate even more than patronage? Double standards. And sexism.

Anyhow, if you’ll excuse me I must go check on my pigs. I don’t know that I ever intend to go into politics, but I’m trying to keep my options open…

** = James Garfield, Martin van Buren and Calvin Coolidge, respectively

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