Tuesday, February 13, 2007

(all smoke and mirrors?) Women lacking influence in Ottawa

Women lacking influence in Ottawa
Feb 13, 2007 James Travers / Toronto Star

No matter who said it first, Stéphane Dion should consider the politically incorrect foolishness in the comedic line: A woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.

Nominating more female candidates, as the Liberal leader promises, would be a good thing. It's just not the most important thing.

Elections, Parliaments and, most of all, minority governments are about numbers. But when the math is done, what counts is who has influence.

Don't bother taking off shoes and socks to figure out the answer. In the national capital, power is concentrated at the centre and at the centre of power are men.

That's not a new phenomenon. It's a long search to find a woman cabinet minister with the muscle of her strongest male counterparts.

While many have had high profiles, a convincing case can be made that the last to play a defining role in her party or government was Flora MacDonald and that was way back in the sepia-tone '70s. Worse still, the first Canadian woman to mount a significant leadership challenge is best remembered for support that melted into a pool of disappointment at the 1976 Progressive Conservative convention won by Joe Clark.

Dion is now in grave danger of repeating what political scientists and pundits call the Flora Syndrome – the disappearance under pressure of male commitment to female politicians. Apart from raising the hackles of those offended by aggressive affirmative action, discouraging men from some nomination contests won't, in itself, do much for women.

What would make a difference is obvious. First, the Liberal leader should use some or all of the party's soon-to-be-vacant "safe" seats to attract star women candidates. Then he should take them seriously.

Neither step is the current norm or without pitfalls. Ambitious Liberals are already jostling over prize Ontario and Quebec ridings, including Toronto Centre, easily held since 1993 by highly respected Bill Graham, and LaSalle-Emard, Paul Martin's comfortable Montreal seat since 1988.

Generational change means Dion has plenty of other ridings to use as bait. But luring talented women to Ottawa is the lesser challenge.

Getting close to power is a relative snap. Getting to wield it is problematic.

Consider the instructive experience of someone who seemed to have it all. A lawyer, academic and rare Alberta Liberal, Anne McLellan was also close to Martin, highly respected by mandarins, and deputy prime minister.

But what was more important is what McLellan didn't have. She didn't have political clout.

Like other women before her – Barbara McDougall, Brian Mulroney's flamboyant foreign affairs minister, leaps to mind – McLellan couldn't apply her considerable ability much beyond her portfolio.

One criticism is that McLellan was better at analyzing Martin administration problems than confronting her friend. She didn't, or couldn't, kick down the walls around Martin – walls built and defended by the unelected officials who now insulate every prime minister.

The veiled suggestion is she wasn't tough, that she didn't behave like a man. There's something in that but there are also other inescapable truths. Of those, the most significant is that no one here penetrates this capital's inner circle unless their advice is valued. And women are consistently undervalued.

That's at least as true for this government as the last. After promising to weaken their predecessors' iron grip on Parliament, Stephen Harper's Conservatives are holding power painfully close to their almost exclusively male chests.

Sure, Senate House Leader Marjory LeBreton appears with Harper when convenient and communications director Sandra Buckler occasionally makes the news, often as part of the government's continuing fight with the media over press freedom. But no one here confuses those roles as anything more than supporting.

Others have been treated less well.

Old sores and an abundance of Albertans kept proven Diane Ablonczy from raising the collective cabinet IQ. Rona Ambrose was never treated seriously as environment minister until someone had to be blamed for laughable policies the Prime Minister approved.

So it goes here for women. A paternalistic Jean Chrétien carelessly sabotaged Jane Stewart's promising career by pushing her aside during the loans and grants fiasco. Martin treated the already fading Sheila Copps badly enough to generate national sympathy.

None of that will change as long as women are dismissed here as just women. As important as nominations and cabinet posts are in correcting a precarious gender imbalance, what women are missing most is influence. Anything else is just blowing smoke.


Jan_ from_ BruceCounty said...

And lets talk about Alexa M. from Halifax. The NDP can also be a part of the old boys network. But I have seen a powerful woman of influence - Francis lankin, ONT NDP.

audacious said...

Iona Campagnolo is another one i recall ...