Rebuilding Conservatives' record on women presents challenge and opportunity

The Conservatives will be hoping that their choice of Rona Ambrose as an interim leader will help to rebuild the party following its defeat under Stephen Harper and a campaign that was seen as negative in tone.

Party selects a female interim leader to help the party rebuild with a more positive image

Michelle Rempel, left, Rona Ambrose, centre, and Lisa Raitt are expected to play key roles in the Conservative Party's rebuilding process. (Canadian Press)

Like Kim Campbell in 1993, Rona Ambrose follows after a man who long dominated as leader of both the party and the country, but outstayed his welcome with voters.

The Conservatives will be hoping that this choice of interim leader will be more auspicious, as they attempt to rebuild a party with a gentler image than the one that led to defeat under Stephen Harper.

Some women in the party believe that transformation starts with a bigger role for them.

In a late-night Twitter rant just days after the election, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel confronted that notion.

"Many of you talk about women in leadership in politics. These are the things we face. I am competent, proven and ready. Here's the question — are you ready for someone like me?"

Rempel's tweets that night seemed to be a litany of reasons she heard from other Conservatives about why she shouldn't be a leader, including that she was "too bossy" — an objection that never seems to have slowed the notoriously controlling Harper.

They also seemed to pose a question: Does the party have a problem with women?

Scarcity of candidates

Canadians may not have realized how male-dominated the outgoing Conservative caucus was. That's partly because the party seated many of its female and visible minority members in the Commons chamber in a tight clutch of seats behind and to the left of the prime minister, presenting the view of a well-balanced caucus to the cameras during question period.

Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons. Women were more prominent in the camera angles than in the party as a whole. (Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

In fact, the Conservative Party has consistently fielded fewer female candidates than any of the other four major parties in Canada: the Liberals, the New Democrats, the Greens and the Bloc Québécois.

In Harper's first election as leader of the newly constituted Conservative Party of Canada, just 36 of its candidates — 11.7 per cent — were female. That was not only a lower proportion than in the other four major parties, but also less than all eight fringe parties.

Over time, the proportion increased to 22.1 per cent in 2011. But that proportion — the best the party ever achieved in all five elections held under Harper's leadership — is still lower than the lowest level recorded by any other major party during the same period.

And this year, the Conservative Party actually went backward in terms of gender equality, running just 20 per cent female candidates, compared with 43 per cent for the New Democrats, 40 per cent for the Greens, 31 per cent for the Liberals and 28 per cent for the Bloc.

Average female representation among candidates 2004-15

  • NDP: 36.6%
  • Greens: 29.8%
  • BQ: 28.2%
  • Liberals: 26.2%
  • Conservatives: 17.3%

Harper defended his government's crackdown on the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies by saying during the campaign, "We want to promote equality between men and women."

But he seemed to suggest the relative lack of Tory female candidates was more the party's fault than his own, when Harper was asked about the apparent disconnect in Montreal on Oct. 3.

"The leader does not pick candidates. Candidates are selected through a democratic process."

"We have a very good record of getting women elected to Parliament and advancing women to cabinet under my leadership," he said.

Harper was right to say that his cabinet often reflected a better gender balance than the overall caucus.

Nine of 31 posts were held by women in Harper's last cabinet, including Public Works (Diane Finley), Environment (Leona Aglukkaq), Health (Ambrose), Labour (Kellie Leitch), Transport (Lisa Raitt) and National Revenue (Kerry-Lynn Findlay). At its peak, Harper's 39-member cabinet had 12 women.

Rona Ambrose selected as Conservative interim leader


6 years ago
Edmonton MP Rona Ambrose says former leader Stephen Harper spoke to the Conservative caucus 2:04

Trudeau on Wednesday delivered Canada's first-ever gender-balanced cabinet, with 15 of 30 posts, aside from his own, going to women.

Slights and perceived slights

In a campaign in which the Conservatives accepted invitations to a number of different boutique debates, including a Globe and Mail debate on the economy and a Munk debate on foreign affairs, Harper was the only federal leader to refuse to participate in a debate on women's issues sponsored by the Toronto Star on Sept. 21.

During his time in office, Harper was criticized for cutting funding to Status of Women Canada by 37 per cent and closing 12 of 16 regional offices. The organization's core mandate was also rewritten in the first days of the Harper government, changing it from "advance equality for women" to merely "facilitate women's participation in Canadian society."

The OECD ranked Canada 23rd in terms of gender pay equity when Harper assumed office. It has since slipped to 28th place.

Polls throughout the recent Canadian campaign showed a fairly consistent six to nine per cent gap between men's support for the Conservative Party and women's. They also showed that Harper's approval ratings were consistently higher among men than among women, by about the same margin.

One of the last polls taken before election day, a Forum Research poll that correctly predicted a Liberal majority, suggested the Conservatives and Liberals were tied among male voters at 35 per cent each. But the Liberals held a 13 per cent lead among female voters.

Raitt, seen as a possible contender for the permanent job as party leader, says the party has been failing to get the support of women and needs to figure out why.

"We're really losing in terms of the 18- to 49-year-old women," she told Rosemary Barton on Power & Politics.

"What do we need to do to get into the mindset, focusing in on what's important to women?" she said. "We need to do better."

Special Report: The parliamentary gender gap

A record 88 women were elected in the 2015 federal election, up from 76 in 2011. The increase represents a modest gain in terms of representation, with women now accounting for 26 per cent of the seats in the House. Read a special report the gender imbalance in Canadian politics.


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