Do you like your politics same-sex or opposite-sex?

This commentary was first published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal October 6, 2014.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party to fix the problem that the party is mostly men. Good men but hey, there’s stuff you haven’t lived, and this is not a same-sex democracy. And frankly, some of you are there because you are men.

Now is the time to change things, early in a new government term. The tradition is to wait until just a couple of months before a provincial election, and reporters ask you whether there will be more women running for your party, and you say, we really, really want more women. Then, it’s too late. And you can’t say that anymore. You’ve been saying that since 1935, when New Brunswick women were first allowed to run as candidates. It’s old. Psychiatrists have a word for people who do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

This is not a same-sex democracy, so your party needs women. Fortunately, there are a lot of good women. Many of them are looking at you, not impressed. And fortunately, it is possible for parties to become more diversified – all the other provinces are doing better than New Brunswick, as are most countries.
Political parties are gatekeepers to the Legislature, plus they receive significant public funding, so they have a responsibility to act, and we have a responsibility to demand it.
However, it’s not just a party problem. The government has the main responsibility to act, especially since the New Brunswick legislature is spectacularly lacking in diversity. Before last month’s election, about 90% of the seats were occupied by men. Now it’s 84%. In the past, it’s been as low as 82% male. It goes up and down like that, from tragic to marginally less pathetic.

The government has a responsibility to enhance democracy. I mean, who deserves 84 percent of the seats when they are 49 percent of the population? If you think our Legislature has so many males because candidates are chosen on merit and women don’t make the grade, then let me doubt that your female ancestors are proud of you, and that you really value democracy. And I’ll bet you’ve never sat in on the goings on at the Legislature.

“One sex, however sympathetic, cannot fully and fairly represent the interests of the other,” said a Welsh politician a few years ago.

Actually New Brunswick was supposed to have about 35 per cent female MLAs by about now. In 2005, the provincial government was given a plan by the provincial Commission on Legislative Democracy which would have increased the proportion of women in the Legislature to 35 per cent by 2015.

It involved increasing the annual allowance given to political parties by $1 per valid vote to any party in which women comprise at least 35 per cent of the candidates in the preceding provincial election, as well as requiring the parties to report every two years to Elections New Brunswick on the steps they had taken to increase women’s representation. The Commission also recommended that government assist groups to encourage and prepare women to get into municipal or provincial politics.

Another recommendation of the Commission, replacing our antiquated electoral system with a specific form of proportional representation, was expected to have the side effect of increasing diversity among elected representatives.

It’s interesting to note also the Commission had not been specifically asked to solve women’s under-representation but it identified it as one of the solutions to making the Legislature more effective. The Commission said there is little evidence that New Brunswick’s dismal record would change without measures being taken.
There is also much that political parties can do, and some already do much that is right to attract female candidates. I could list what has worked elsewhere, but parties who want change find how to do it, so it seems that what is missing is the will to change.

While it is true that some of us would not consider running in provincial politics because parties require its representatives to adhere to a “party line” – “it would be too much like living with my first husband” is how one New Brunswick woman put it to me – there are many New Brunswick women who are interested in politics.

Actually, there are many New Brunswick women in politics, just not the elected kind. The parties, who control the elected kind of provincial politics, should take that personally: it’s not her, it’s you that is the problem.

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