In 2016, the days of parliamentary committee meetings dominated by often well-meaning but largely male experts and organizations that often speak for only half of the population should be long gone. This should be especially true for the special committee convened by Parliament this past June to consider the fundamental question of viable alternatives to Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system.
But, not surprisingly, despite Canada’s laudable aspirations for gender equality, they don’t stand a chance of translating into gender-equitable policies without concerted effort and clear intentions.
Despite having a mandate to evaluate the inclusivity and accessibility of Canada’s electoral system, the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform this summer heard from nearly five times as many men as women. Of the 62 witnesses who appeared before the committee this summer, just 13 were women. That’s a mere 20 per cent. In almost half of all meetings, fully 100 per cent of the witnesses were men. At one point, the committee convened seven meetings in a row without hearing from a single female witness.
Nonetheless, some of the most provocative testimony this summer came from this pool of 13 women. Melanee Thomas of the University of Calgary told the committee that “the suggestion that Canadian women, Canadians who are not white, and indigenous Canadians need major institutional reform to achieve representation in anything close to fair numbers is completely indefensible.”
This is because informal barriers to political engagement prove to be far more pernicious than any one electoral system. Jane Hilderman, executive director of Samara, cautioned that, while we can learn from other countries, each system has its trade-offs, partisan advantage is hard to predict, and that no system eliminates the need for Canadians to think strategically about their vote.
Given the fact that Canada’s first-past-the-post system has been woefully imperfect in terms of the electoral outcomes it has shaped for women who remain severely under-represented, the committee—going forward—must be much more thoughtful about whom precisely they hear from.
Moreover, with Canada ranked a dismal 64th internationally for women’s representation in national parliaments, it is essential that the committee’s review and decision-making process for electoral reform recognize and consider the effects on women’s representation in all parts of the federal political system, including democratic engagement.
In a submission to the committee authored by political scientist Grace Lore on behalf of Equal Voice, we have recommended a number of measures.
First, the federal nomination process—not just the voting system—should be fully evaluated during this process to address issues of transparency, cost, and predictability. It remains a key barrier and gateway for women’s electoral participation.
Second, the pervasive issue of retaining talented women to serve in an often-toxic political culture also needs to be addressed.
Finally, when evaluating electoral systems, it is imperative to consider not just the outcomes for descriptive representation (in other words, the number of women elected), but also the consequences for women’s capacity to substantively address issues that disproportionately affect women.
Equal Voice’s submission also contains an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the three categories of electoral reform systems being considered by the committee: majority/plurality systems, mixed systems, and proportional systems.
If anyone doubts women’s interest in the issue, a full house for two quickly convened consultations on women and electoral reform, co-convened in Toronto last week by Equal Voice and YWCA Canada, proved otherwise. During these sessions, women and men both told Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef that they want a system that is more inclusive of women—both as candidates on the ballot and, ultimately, in the House.
No doubt, none of this is lost on Minister Monsef. As a younger minister and the first Afghan-born woman to serve in Parliament, she embodies some of the best of what Canada’s democracy has to offer. She is acutely aware of the impact of a Parliament that isn’t fully inclusive or representative of the population.
As the all-party committee begins its cross-country consultations with Canadians, Equal Voice is encouraging women in all of their diversity to come to the table. This includes political scientists, women’s organizations, former candidates, and elected officials, as well as younger women who aspire to participate in federal politics.
Seeking out and listening to these women will provide MPs with the chance to better understand the significant limitations and enormous opportunities for women within each of the electoral systems under consideration, including our current one.
When the all-party committee issues its final report by Dec. 1, its findings and recommendations must fully consider the effects of changes to the political process writ large on women’s participation in politics. In 2016, anything less is unacceptable.
Nancy Peckford is the executive director of Equal Voice, a national, multi-partisan organization dedicated to increasing women’s participation in politics. Grace Lore is Equal Voice’s senior researcher.
The Hill Times
Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions
Isabelle Mondou, assistant secretary to the cabinet and counsel to the clerk of the Privy Council
Maryantonett Flumian, president, Institute on Governance
Nathalie Des Rosiers, dean, faculty of law, civil law, Ottawa University
Nicole Goodman, director, Centre for e-Democracy, assistant professor, Munk School of Global Affairs
Pippa Norris, professor, University of Sydney, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Harvard, director of the Electoral Integrity Project
Yasmin Dawood, associate law professor and Canada Research Chair in Democracy, Constitutionalism, and Electoral Law, University of Toronto
Katelynn Northam, electoral reform campaigner, Leadnow.ca
Melanee Thomas, assistant professor of political science, University of Calgary
Mary Pitcaithly, Electoral Commission convenor, Electoral Management Board for Scotland
Jane Hilderman, executive director, Samara
Dara Lithwick, analyst, Library of Parliament
Erin Virgint, analyst, Library of Parliament
Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer
Stéphane Perrault, deputy chief electoral officer, regulatory affairs
Michel Roussel, deputy chief electoral officer, electoral events
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, chief electoral officer, 1990-2007
Kenneth Carty, professor emeritus, University of British Columbia
Brian Tanguay, professor, political science, Wilfrid Laurier University
Nelson Wiseman, director, Canadian studies program, and political science professor, University of Toronto
Michael Gallagher, professor of comparative politics, Trinity College Dublin
Michael Marsh, emeritus professor, Trinity College Dublin
Patrice Dutil, professor, Ryerson University
Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science, University of Toronto
Robert Peden, chief electoral officer, New Zealand Electoral Commission
Tom Rogers, electoral commissioner, Australian Electoral Commission
André Blais, political science professor, Université de Montréal
Alex Himelfarb, clerk of the Privy Council, 2002-2006
Henry Milner, senior researcher, chair in electoral studies, Université de Montréal
Leslie Seidle, research director, Canada’s changing federal community, Institute for Research on Public Policy
Hugo Cyr, political science and law faculty dean, Université du Québec à Montréal
Larry LeDuc, professor emeritus, University of Toronto
Dennis Pilon, associate professor of political science, York University
Jonathan Rose, associate professor of policital studies, Queen’s University
Benoît Pelletier, law professor, University of Ottawa
Arend Lijphart, research professor emeritus of political science, University of California, San Diego
Christian Dufour, political scientist, analyst, and writer
Harold Jansen, political science professor, University of Lethbridge
Barry Cooper, professor, University of Calgary
Emmett Macfarlane, assistant professor, University of Waterloo
Thomas S. Axworthy, public policy chair, Massey College, University of Toronto
Matthew P. Harrington, law professor, Université de Montréal
Ed Broadbent, chair and founder, Broadbent Institute
Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, Quebec democratic reform minister (2002-2003)
Jean-Sébastien Dufresne, president, Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle
Peter John Loewen, director, School of Public Policy and Governance, and associate professor of political science, University of Toronto
Eric Maskin, Adams University Professor of economics, Harvard University
Louis Massicotte, political science professor, Laval University
Joachim Behnke, political science professor, Zeppelin University, Germany
Friedrich Pukelsheim, professor, Institut für Mathematik, Universität Augsburg, Germany
Andy O’Neill, Electoral Commission head, Electoral Management Board for Scotland
Darrell Bricker, CEO, IPSOS Public Affairs
Gordon F. Gibson
Richard Johnston, political science professor, University of British Columbia
Taylor Gunn, president, Civix
Dominic Vézina, strategic adviser, Institut du Nouveau Monde
Graham Fox, president and CEO, Institute for Research on Public Policy
Craig Scott, professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
Marcus Pistor, senior director, economics, resources and international affairs division, Library of Parliament
Ian McDonald, principal clerk, committees and legislative services directorate, House of Commons
Eric Janse, clerk assistant, committees and legislative services directorate, House of Commons
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