Wait now, I thought it was 2015?

We’ve achieved gender parity in our federal cabinet, but will we see the same in N.L. following next week’s provincial election?

Everybody keeps saying that the results of the federal election last month are going to have an impact on the election results here in Newfoundland and Labrador. The media is talking about the “red wave,” the impact of Trudeau on the hearts and minds of voters, and we’re hearing a lot about a coattail effect. In truth, the “time for change” speak we hear in the province has been around for over a year (not just since Oct. 19), and we’ve seen the writing on the wall for quite a while. Recent polling results only hammer home the idea that we’re going to see a change in government next week.

But how much will the province really follow in the footsteps of the country as a whole? Are the patterns we saw at the federal level really playing out at the provincial level? 

In a couple of words, no, not really. At least, not where it counts. 

The federal election saw a record number of women elected to the legislature: 88, or 26 percent of the seats in the Canadian House of Commons. Twenty-six percent isn’t awesome, but it’s an increase, and that’s important. 

Another big deal? Trudeau’s parity cabinet. Say what you want about whether or not Trudeau really created the first Canadian parity cabinet (he didn’t: the current Alberta government under Rachel Notley has a parity cabinet, the Yukon had a parity cabinet in 2000, Quebec has had a couple of near-parity cabinets under Jean Charest in the mid-late 2000s; and Ontario came close with 42 percent in 1990 under Bob Rae), the move at the national level is important. It sets a baseline for future cabinet formation, whereby prime ministers and premiers will need to justify why they feel that white men are more qualified than everyone else to make decisions. 

Will women be underrepresented in the impending provincial cabinet?

So why am I talking about parity cabinets now, when I began by talking about the “red wave” and its impact in Newfoundland and Labrador? Because with electoral success comes a great deal of power to do things. We all know that strong majorities can pass all kinds of legislation without much opposition, and we know that popular parties can do important things that unpopular parties can’t. 

So let’s take a look at the slates put forward by the three main political parties: the incumbent PC Party has six women out of 40 candidates running in the election (15 percent); the Liberal Party has eight women running (20 percent); and the NDP has 18 women candidates (45 percent). Table One puts the current election into context with elections over the past 20 years.

Table 1

If it’s a complete Liberal sweep (and I don’t think it will be), then the House of Assembly will have only 20 percent women, which is not good. If the Liberal Party forms government (and polls indicate that it will), then Dwight Ball will have to decide who he wants to sit in his cabinet. If he creates a 16-person cabinet (as has been the norm in the last couple of elections), and he wants to ensure that he meets parity, then he has to appoint all of the women who ran under the Liberal Party banner (assuming they will have won their seats).

Follow me? 

What are the odds he will appoint every single woman in the Liberal caucus to cabinet? It has been done before across the provinces over the years, but not very often (Saskatchewan’s PC government in 1986 appointed the only two women in its caucus to cabinet; PEI’s PC government in that same year appointed its only PC female caucus member to cabinet; Nova Scotia’s Liberal government of 1998 appointed its sole female caucus member to cabinet; and New Brunswick’s PC governments of 1982 and 2003 appointed its three and five women caucus members to cabinet, respectively). 

Table Two lists the proportion of women in cabinet in Newfoundland and Labrador over the last 20 years, across both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments, to give you a sense of how many women have held leadership roles in the recent past.Table 2

Basically, what I’m forecasting here for Dec. 1 (and in 2015, no less!) is a government with a) very few women in a position of power; b) a caucus with very little diversity and very few “new voices;” and c) a cabinet that does no better on gender (and maybe does worse) than cabinets over the last 20 years.

How could this have been different, you wonder? 

Is the problem that voters just don’t want to elect women? 

No. All the research shows that female candidates do just as well as male candidates. Voters are not anti-woman. When women run, they have as good a chance of winning as men. The biggest barrier to having more women in the legislature is recruitment. If we wanted more women sitting in the House, if we believed that women MHAs like Lynn Verge (PC), Gerry Rogers (NDP), or Joan-Marie Aylward (Liberal) brought important perspectives and made a difference in the House of Assembly, then we would put pressure on parties to do better.

C’mon. It’s 2015!

Simply put, leading up to this election, the parties could have—should have—made more of an effort to recruit women to run in the election.

Do we really believe (in 2015!) that there are only six women out there who are “qualified” to run for the PCs in this election? Or that there are only eight women willing to run under the Liberal banner? No. What we see here is parties simply not doing enough to diversify their candidate pool. Historically, women were elected to the provincial House of Assembly in highest numbers in the 2003 and 2007, when Danny Williams’ PC Party took over the House with 34 and then 44 seats out of 48, and only 10 women were elected (see Table Three for a comparison over the last 20 years). 

My point here, again, is that a giant majority doesn’t necessarily lead to policy innovation, and in a situation where a party could have done a lot to increase women’s presence had they simply had more women candidates across the province before the swept it, they didn’t. The same thing is happening now.Table 3

I’m going to set aside the question of whether or not having more women in the legislature is a good thing; I think it’s fairly straightforward and easy to argue that diversity of voices in general is desirable, that it leads to new ideas and policy innovation, never mind the increased satisfaction that we as citizens have that “people like us” are sitting in the House.

Imagine if the entire legislature was made up of townies. Or baymen. Or CFAs (the horror!). This would be a major problem for most of us in terms of whether we feel we are represented. We’d be pretty upset, we’d feel left out of the legislature, and perhaps most importantly, we’d feel like the legislature was missing some important perspectives. The same applies when it comes to women. 

I know a lot of people (women and men) who are pretty unhappy with the lack of women in the St. John’s City Council, for example, and who feel like the lack of diverse voices doesn’t represent them, and means that important ideas aren’t being heard or considered when decisions are being made.

So what do the N.L. parties do to try to encourage women to run for candidate nomination? Collectively, as in federal politics, not very much, but the main parties are different in their policies on this issue. 

The PC Party constitution is the most minimal on recruitment of women. And by most minimal, I mean they have no formal policy surrounding recruiting or supporting women. If more women run in a given election, it’s not because of anything the party does (at least not officially) to encourage women’s presence. (Although in recent correspondence they have indicated that they understand they’re lagging, they think this is an important issue, and they intend to look at the matter in their next AGM. Good. That obviously needs to happen.) 

The Liberal Party is a bit better: they have a Women’s Commission whose role it is to seek out female candidates in the province, and they provide some financial support to women’s campaigns in the form of the Lady Helena Squires Fund. In addition, they’ve started holding an annual forum on “Women, Leadership and Politics,” as well having created a formal mentorship program. So gender is on their radar, but as you can see from the minimal number of women running, this isn’t enough on its own. 

Women Election 2015

The NDP has the most programs in place of the three major parties. Not only is their nomination process the least stringent (only one signature is needed to nominate a candidate, versus 25 for the other two parties), the party also provides money to support women’s campaigns through the Helen Fogwill Porter fund, as well as hosting an annual “Front Door Forum” to highlight women in politics.

So far it sounds just like the Liberal slate of programs, but the most important part of the NDP effort is its oversight of the application of its affirmative action policy, which leads the party to actively seek out female candidates. The provincial NDP follows the national NDP’s practice of ensuring that local riding associations have undertaken an affirmative action search process, and does not close the nomination until the riding demonstrates that they have met the party’s equity guidelines.

So what’s the problem, then, you might ask? Surely with all these programs in place among at least two of three parties, we’re doing enough for women, right? Women have the legal right to vote, to run as candidates, and voters don’t actually discriminate against women — so if they’re not in politics, surely it’s their own fault for not being ambitious enough or tough enough (or dare I say, “man enough”)? 

Well, ummmm, no, actually.

Women face challenges most men don’t

Women are disadvantaged in a number of ways. Putting aside the fact that women have so few role-models in politics, which means they often don’t think of politics as a type of work they could/should/want to do, life often gets in the way of their candidacy. Women tend to bear the brunt of child-rearing and family-care activities (even in 2015!), taking care of not only their own children, but also often caring for ailing and aging family members. So they have less time. 

A snowball effect follows. More time working in the home means that they work less outside of the home, or if they do, they work part-time. This means they don’t usually have access to the same kinds of social networks that men do (and in particular, networks involving money and power), so they may not be approached to run for politics as often as men who are working full-time in a wider variety of job-types. And, even if they cook up the idea of running for politics on their own (and they usually don’t), they often lack money as well as networks necessary to find donors. 

 Women have played an important, essential role in party politics in the province since the start. But it’s not enough to have them in women’s caucuses, on party executives, out canvassing on behalf of men, operating the phone lines, and so on.

This is why I say that recruitment and party support is the single most important thing to increasing women’s presence as candidates.

Women need to be approached, recruited, convinced, and convinced some more. They need to be asked, often, not just once, and they need to be connected with individuals who can help to support their campaigns. Since women often don’t have the social networks that already do this, the parties need to work harder to make this happen. They need to seek out women, work hard to convince them to run, and then connect them with people who can support their campaigns (both financially and organizationally). This needs to be a formal policy within parties, otherwise it simply won’t happen. Or, at least, it won’t happen any time soon. 

In places around the world where women are present in legislatures in higher proportions, there are often affirmative action policies (or quotas) in place. And in many cases, other types of electoral systems are being used instead of the first-past-the-post system we use (e.g. proportional representation), thus providing the central party executive with more control and power over the nomination of candidates. 

Electoral reform or affirmative action policies/quotas might seem extreme to some. While I support those ideas generally, there are also other things that can be done without changing the system itself. 

Our system does set out a lot of barriers: the power of incumbency is one of them (incumbents often win their seats, and incumbents are often men, so the cycle continues from election to election), and decentralized candidate nomination is another. 

The decentralized structure of all parties’ nomination processes (common in our type of electoral system) makes coordination at the executive level difficult: local riding associations don’t like parachuted candidates, and the central organization doesn’t usually impose candidates on ridings, not even to ensure candidate diversity.

Doing more to encourage and support women entering politics

There are things that can be done, however. 

The B.C. NDP, for example, has a policy in place whereby if their female elected MHAs retire, they can only be replaced by other female candidates. Further, if male elected MHAs retire, they also must be replaced by either women or other traditionally marginalized groups, like First Nations or visible minority groups. This is a party-wide policy, but the local riding association still has the power to nominate their own candidates, they just need to do it within the parameters set out by the party. So there are things that can be done even within the confines of our current system.

Women have played an important, essential role in party politics in the province since the start. But it’s not enough to have them in women’s caucuses, on party executives, out canvassing on behalf of men, operating the phone lines, and so on. 

This is not to detract from what women have done behind the scenes, but a democratic society requires that elected representatives come from all segments of society, not just one or two. And a democratic society does what it can to improve the opportunities for all of its members. Until parties take this role seriously, we’re never going to have a fully representative legislature in the province.

Amanda Bittner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Memorial University. She specializes in public opinion and voting, and her main research interests include the role of knowledge and information on voters’ decisions, as well as the institutional and structural incentives affecting voting behavior.

For more detailed discussion on the topic of women in N.L. politics, check out a chapter written by Amanda Bittner and Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant (Queen’s University) in “Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments”.

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