Bringing Gender Equity to Parliament

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Leadership Monday, May 16, 2016 View Count = 7134

Bringing Gender Equity to Parliament


Samara believes a House of Commons that better reflects the diversity of Canadians and their experiences will generate a more resilient and responsive Parliament, and can improve Canadians' willingness to participate in all aspects of public life. Yet many groups – women among them – remain underrepresented today among Canada’s 338 Members of Parliament. 

On May 11th, 2016, Kennedy Stewart, MP for Burnaby South, introduced a bill designed to bring gender parity to the House of Commons by incentivizing political parties to nominate more women in future elections. This kicks off an important conversation about creating the conditions for a diversity of Canadians, especially women, to enter politics that Samara intends to continue in upcoming MP exit interviews over the next year.

Read Kennedy Stewart's full speech to Parliament below.

"Mr. Speaker, I am proud to stand today to speak to my private member's bill, Bill C-237, the candidate gender equity act. In this speech I will outline why I think the bill is necessary, how the bill proposes to address identified problems, responses to possible criticisms, who supports the bill, and how I hope the bill will move forward.

At the outset, I would like to say that at the very least I hope we can send the bill to committee as it is an important first step to making our Parliament more gender equal. As I have explained to colleagues, I am open to making changes to improve the bill, with the overall objective of having it made law, and increasing the percentage of women elected to Parliament in the next and subsequent elections.

Despite the very partisan nature of this place, I think we can all say that we felt pride when the Prime Minister announced that his first cabinet would be the first-ever gender-balanced cabinet. It sent a signal to Canadians and to the world that we take gender equity seriously.

I am also happy to hear that the Prime Minister also considers himself a feminist, as do I. In my humble opinion, if we continue down this path, I think it is possible that this Parliament may be considered the gender-equity Parliament by future historians. However, there is a way to go before we would deserve such a label, and a lot has to do with who sits in this place.

Despite electing a record number 88 women MPs in the 2015 election, women currently hold only 26% of the seats in this place, meaning that almost three out of every four MPs is male. As a result, Canada ranks 61st out of 191 countries when it comes to the proportion of women elected to Parliament. That is not a proud record. It positions us behind countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and El Salvador, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

What is worse is that we are dropping like a stone in those international league tables. In 1991, we were ranked 21st in the world in terms of the proportion of seats held by women, but have since been passed by 40 countries who now elect more women to the legislature than we do. Although Canadian women were granted the right to vote almost 100 years ago, it might take us until 2075, which is another 60 years, for women to hold half the seats in our Parliament if we continue at this current rate. Throughout history, only 6% of the seats in the House of Commons have ever been held by women. This needs to change. This is more than mere statistics. These numbers mean something.

If our system was fair, the House of Commons would mirror our society. If the system by which we select and elect MPs was just, the House of Commons would not be forever filled mostly with people that look like you and me, Mr. Speaker, but would better reflect the rich diversity of our country, and half of the seats in this place would be held by women. It is wrong that a certain group, such as straight, old, white males, should dominate our legislature. It is wrong from a justice perspective and from a policy perspective.

The politics of presence matters, and the decisions made in this place directly reflect the perspectives of those who propose and vote on these decisions. With so few women in this place to have their ideas and voices heard, the decisions made here will not accurately reflect the views of Canadian women. This is wrong.

There are two steps to becoming an MP in any modern democracy. The first step requires aspiring candidates to be selected as an official candidate by a political party. The second step requires the official candidate to win enough votes to secure a seat during an election. More and more academic research shows voters are not biased against women candidates. When women run, they are just as likely to be elected as men.

The reason so few women are elected to Parliament is that parties nominate so few women to stand as candidates. More than enough women put their names forward to stand as candidates. Therefore, there is not a lack of supply of women to run in half of the 338 ridings in Canada. This makes sense. After all, we have 18 million women in Canada. Parties need only 169 women candidates to present a balanced slate. I do not think anyone can argue that parties would be unable to find 169 qualified, deserving women candidates.

The reason so few women are selected as candidates is bias within the nomination processes used by political parties. In many cases, party officials and selectors are biased toward selecting men over women, because they think men candidates have a better chance of winning elections. It has nothing to do with merit. The merit argument has been thoroughly discredited in the academic literature. Not only do more than enough women come forward to run for office, they are usually more credentialed than their male competitors. The idea of merit is now seen as a mere cover to disguise patriarchal values, that is, systematic preference for men over women.

However, we do know that men do not have a better chance of winning elections than women, but this perception of winnability stacks the process against women. My own published research, written in partnership with my wife, Dr. Jeanette Ashe, who was chair of the Department of Political Science at Douglas College, shows that in some Canadian candidate nominations, men are five times more likely to win candidate selection contests than women when all other factors are held equal.

While Canada currently has no legislation on the books to promote gender equity in our democratic process, legislatures in over 100 countries have discovered similar biases and have passed laws to ensure more women are elected to office. We need to do the same here by enacting Bill C-237, the candidate gender equity act.

Where other countries have passed intrusive laws or constitutional amendments which, for example, forbid political parties from participating in elections if they fail to put forward a certain proportion of women candidates, Bill C-237 proposes a mild incentive scheme to nudge political parties in moving toward gender parity in their nominations.

The bill incentivizes political parties to run more women candidates by linking it to existing public subsidies for parties.

Many may not be aware that after every election, political parties are partially reimbursed for their election expenses. Taxpayers reimburse political parties for up to 80% of funds spent on research, advertising and other election activities. Bill C-237 proposes that in order to incentivize parties, some of this money should be withheld if a party fails to put forward a gender-balanced candidate list.

The incentive formula is simple and based on subtracting the percentage of women candidates from the percentage of men candidates to give us the extent to which a party's list of candidates is gender balanced. Here is an example. Under this new law, if party A puts forward 45% women candidates and 55% men candidates, the party loses none of its public subsidies. However, if party B puts forward 25% women candidates and 75% men candidates, then the public subsidy is reduced by 10%.

As these numbers show, this reduction nudges parties toward running more women candidates and toward parity. The good news is that we know these measures work. Similar incentivizing laws have been put in place in France, Ireland and Portugal with great effect. It is important to point out that France has a single member system, Ireland has a single transferrable vote system, Portugal has a list proportional representative system, proving this law can work under any type of electoral system.

In terms of how well it works, in the last Irish election, a similar law saw a 90% increase in the number of women candidates and a 40% increase in the number of women elected to the Irish parliament. This works.

It is important that I did my homework before proposing the bill. It is based on my own academic work as well as that of others, and I was assisted by a panel of experts when I did the draft.

I first began writing about political gender equity while doing my Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and continued to publish on this topic in my position as associate professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Public Policy.

I have also been helped by a panel of experts, including professors Rosie Campbell from Birkbeck College; Sarah Childs and Liz Evans from Bristol University; Fiona Buckley from University College Cork; and, Meryl Kenny from the University of Edinburgh. I thank these experts for their assistance in drafting this bill and helping me ensure it in no way interferes with internal workings of parties. That is really important to know that this law in no way interferes with how political parties nominate their candidates.

Under this new law, parties still entirely choose their own nomination rules and processes, and decide for themselves how they will meet these incentive measures.

However, although I have done significant research in consultation, I am not presumptive enough to assume it is a perfect law. That is why I ask my colleagues to support it in getting it through committee so we can work together to make it even better.

I have managed to secure considerable endorsements and support for my bill from organizations and individuals. Supportive organizations include Samara, Leadnow, YWCA Toronto, FairVote Canada, ACTRA, Groupes Femmes Politique et Démocratie, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. I would also like to thank Jerry Dias from Unifor for expressing his support for the bill.

Donna Dasko, co-chair for the Campaign for an Equal Senate and past national chair of Equal Voice also supports this bill. Ms. Dasko states, “The Prime Minister had appointed women to half his cabinet positions. Now we need to achieve gender equality and greater diversity in the House of Commons and Senate of Canada. This bill will help us move forward toward this goal”.

I have also heard considerable support for the bill from Canadian academics, including Jeanette Ashe, Sylvia Bashevkin, Karen Bird, Amanda Bittner, Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Avigail Eisenberg, Lynda Erickson, Penny Gurstein, Fiona MacDonald, Sharon McGowan, Susan Prentice, and Melanee Thomas.

In support of this bill, Marjorie Griffin Cohen, professor at Simon Fraser University states, “Bill C-237 is an important initiative to spur political parties to act on behalf of greater gender parity in the House of Commons. Canada has a poor record on gender representation, something that only has improved in other countries when measures to ensure equality were put into practice”.

I would like to repeat that we are 61st out of 191 countries in terms of women's representation in our House.

Finally, I would like to thank my parliamentary colleagues for their support, especially my Liberal, Green, and NDP colleagues who have jointly seconded this bill, as well as Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth and Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer for their public endorsements. It is a truly cross-partisan effort.

Next, I would like to consider and respond to a few potential criticisms of the bill. First, some colleagues have asked whether or not this bill is charter compliant. I want to assure all members that I secured a legal opinion from the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel and that Bill C-237 meets the requirements of our Constitution.

According to the Law Clerk's office, “Bill C-237, if found to infringe subsection 15(1), which in our opinion it does not, could be considered an affirmative action measure and thus saved by subsection 15(2), since it strives to promote consideration of a disadvantaged group—women—in politics and public life. In this sense, the legislation could be seen to have an ameliorative purpose and fall within the ambit of subsection 15(2). It is our opinion that Bill C-237 does not infringe the indicated sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms”.

One specific argument I have heard recently is that the bill would put smaller parties at a comparative disadvantage. More specifically, if a party ran just one candidate in one riding, the difference between male and female candidates would be 100%.

While this example may sound convincing, section 444(1)(c) of the Canada Elections Act currently requires registered parties to receive at least “2% of the number of valid votes cast at the election” in order to be eligible for a reimbursement. It would be impossible for a one-candidate party to receive 2% of the votes nationally.

A second criticism concerns whether Bill C-237 is inclusive of transgendered candidates and those who do not subscribe to dominant male-female gender binary categorizations.

First, currently candidates running for nominations are legally required to state their occupation but not their gender. Bill C-237 aims to rectify this historical oversight by requiring Elections Canada to include gender on its nomination forms, allowing the possibility for transgender or non-binary candidates to have the option to self-identify when they decide to run for office.

Equally as important, the bill would ensure that parties have an incentive to recruit candidates from these groups, using the 45% male, 45% female, 10% unspecified formula.

In conclusion, I hope this short speech goes some way to persuading members that this bill is worthwhile supporting. To recap, the candidate gender equity act, one, works in other countries like Ireland, France, and Portugal; two, is charter compliant; three, does not interfere with the internal party democracy; four, works under any type of electoral system; five, provides incentives for parties to select more transgendered and non-binary candidates; and six, was designed by experts.

Again, although I have done what I can to ensure I put forward the best possible bill, I am not so arrogant to assume it still could not be improved. I ask the Prime Minister, his gender-balanced cabinet, and my colleagues to support it getting to committee so we can work together to make it better together."

Kennedy Stewart was first elected as an MP in the 2011 federal election.

To learn more about Bill C-237, go to

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