Nova Scotia·Opinion

Gender equality in politics should be law, says Graham Steele

If gender equality in representation is a good thing, let's make it the law, political analyst Graham Steele says.

Old attitudes are changing, but so must legislation, political analyst Graham Steele says

Nova Scotia is one of only four Canadian provinces that has never had a female premier. (Robert Short/CBC)

Eleanor Norrie was driving to a community event in the 1990s. As her car pulled into a parking spot in front of the building, a man rushed over.

"You can't park there!" the man said. "That's for the minister!"

It never occurred to him that the minister could be a woman.

The former Nova Scotia cabinet minister tells her story in a new podcast series from the Springtide Collective, in which ex-MLAs reflect on their time in politics.

Her story is a reminder, if we needed one, of the everyday sexism faced by female politicians.

A bad week

I doubt we need a reminder of that reality right now. Last week was bad.

It wasn't just that Hillary Clinton lost, but who she lost to.

Dartmouth South MLA Marian Mancini, a smart and articulate newcomer to the provincial politics, announced she won't re-offer in the next election.

The only two women vying for the leadership of the Alberta PC Party — Donna Kennedy-Glans, left, and Sandra Jansen — withdrew from the race. (Submitted/CBC)

The two female candidates for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party withdrew, one citing gendered harassment.

And there was the latest in a depressingly long line of stories about gendered abuse heaped on female members of Alberta's NDP government.

Critical mass

I join those who are convinced that having more women in elected office would change our politics for the better.

It would change what we talk about, and how we talk about it.

But we haven't yet reached a critical mass.

In Nova Scotia, we have 15 female MLAs in the legislature out of 51. That's the highest ever, but it's still far short of equality.

If we're going to have a skewed system, let's skew it in favour of more women.- Graham Steele

The number of women elected to the House of Assembly depends more on luck and political tides than conscious design.

Today's gains could be reversed tomorrow.

And then there's still that glass ceiling. We're one of only four provinces that has never had a female premier. Two of our three major parties have never even had a female leader.

Votes for women

Of course, there are good things happening, too.

Since Gladys Porter broke the gender barrier in the legislature in 1960, and Maxine Cochran did the same in the cabinet room in 1985, Nova Scotia has been served by many women of distinction.

For many years there have been workshops, by women and for women, to help would-be candidates understand how to prepare for political life.

The Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women has an excellent booklet called Votes for Women with information for women thinking about stepping up.

But it's not enough. Encouragement and support gets us only so far.

Skewed system

Instead of merely encouraging women to run and encouraging parties to have more female candidates, gender equality could be the law.

We could require parties to field at least 50 per cent female candidates, if they're going to get the public subsidy and access to the political donation tax credit.

The parties would fuss, but they would figure out how to make it happen.

To those who argue that selection of party nominees should be strictly merit-based, let me break this gently: the existing system is not merit-based. If we're going to have a skewed system, let's skew it in favour of more women.

To those who argue that all decisions about representation should be left to the voters, I would point out that our single-member, first-past-the-post election system has a baked-in bias.

Voters have only one choice: vote for one candidate in one constituency. Even if all voters agreed that gender equality is a good thing, we could have 50 per cent female candidates and a much lower percentage in the assembly.

Old attitudes

During one of my election campaigns, my main opponent was a woman. I will never forget one voter — an older woman — who said to me matter-of-factly, "Women don't belong in politics."

Those old attitudes change slowly. Last week's events left me wondering if they're changing at all.

The single most significant recent boost for women in politics was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to have a gender-equal cabinet, without regard to the gender balance in his caucus.

But that enlightened decision was still the personal prerogative of one man.

It's time to drop our reliance on the goodwill of individuals. If gender equality in representation is a good thing, let's make it the law.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.