Friday, 30 September 2011

In provincial politics, women matter

by Dr. Joan Grace, University of Winnipeg

For several years, the number of women in the House of Commons stalled at 21% of 308 members - only slightly up to 22% as a result of the May 2011 federal election, even though a record number of women were successfully elected.  In provincial legislatures, women have typically fared better.  According to data from February 2010 published by Equal Voice, Manitoba leads the way at 31.6%, followed by Quebec at 28.8%, Ontario at 27%, British Columbia at 29.4% and PEI at 25.9%.  Three of these provinces are now engaged in an election – here’s hoping the numbers go up, or at least stay the same. 

But wait....something’s happening.  In many of these provinces, women are more visible.  In PEI, 30% of candidates are women, a provincial first.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s quite possible that a woman will be elected both Premier and Official Opposition leader.  And then there’s Manitoba where a record number of women are running to capture a seat at “the Ledge”.  A recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press by Mary Agnes Welch reported that, from the four major political parties, 60 female candidates are running, compared to 58 who contested the election in 2007. 

This is good news for the democratic process.  I agree with my colleague Kelly Saunders who previously contributed to the U2011 Campaign Blog that women can make a difference to electoral and legislative politics. They often do so because they bring a particular perspective on policy issues and public concerns that is often not expressed or advocated by their male counter-parts.   This is based on the argument that women understand and know what it’s like to live as a woman in society – as caregivers or secondary wage earners. 

Even if you don’t agree with this gender argument, I argue that it’s important for women to run for elected office because provincial politics matters.  Provincial governments, after all, who are responsible for programs and policy areas that can mean being economically independent or accessing the labour market because of education, income support, labour and training, health care and child care.  And its cities and localities under the domain of provincial governments who are tasked with services that women depend on each and every day such as playgrounds, safe streets, clean water and public transit to name a few.

And as a perpetual, like it or not, have-not province, it’s up to women to take part in the election and to remind the federal government of their specific needs and demands.  No province functions in isolation.  We are part of a federal system and so we should defend and promote Manitoban interests, especially when they don’t seem to be so women-friendly in Ottawa.  It doesn’t matter which political party is successful in forming the next government on October 4th since the Premier will be part of important first minister talks and meetings which can have a real impact on women and Manitobans.  Health care is often on the agenda at these federal-provincial meetings, and serious socio-economic concerns could be too such as poverty, indigenous rights and affordable housing.

So women matter.   The party leaders know this, because women vote as often as men do, and their votes can sometimes mean the difference between winning or losing.  The NDP, PC and Liberal parties are all appealing to women voters with their focus on families, health care and education.  Even the PC party has just promised to fund Osborne House, a shelter for women in crisis.  The NDP hasn’t made this promise.  Not yet anyway.   But to my mind, this is another reason why women matter in provincial politics.  They vote conservative, they vote liberal and they support the NDP.  While it is the case that women have tended to vote on the left, they are concerned about the issues espoused by the PC party.  They are listening to the Green party too.  The environment and crime are key issues for many women.  All of the parties are paying attention to women voters.  Women in turn must take an active interest in the election, cast their vote and hold the newly elected government to account. 

Joan Grace
University of Winnipeg

Joan Grace appeared at a U2011 Cafe Politique on "Women in Manitoba Politics".  Visit the U2011 YouTube Channel for webcasts of her presentation, and those of Mary Agnes Welch and Louise Carbert.