NATIONAL

ENDANGERED SPECIES ALERT

Stronach’s exit raises a question: where are all the powerful women?

AARON WHERRY April 30 2007
NATIONAL

ENDANGERED SPECIES ALERT

Stronach’s exit raises a question: where are all the powerful women?

AARON WHERRY April 30 2007

ENDANGERED SPECIES ALERT

Stronach’s exit raises a question: where are all the powerful women?

NATIONAL

BY AARON WHERRY • The day after the most captivating figure in Canadian politics since Pierre Trudeau took her own walk in the snow, the Globe and Mail editorial board attempted to write Belinda Stronach’s epitaph. “Her departure,” the paper proclaimed, “leaves barely a ripple.”

visage the front page of the Globe that morning, just as it did the National Post and Toronto Star. Never mind that a Stronach discussion thread at the Globe’s website had drawn 167 comments in 99 minutes before moderators called a halt to the heated discussion. Never mind that the Globe’s online poll—“Belinda Stronach is planning to exit the federal political stage. Will you miss her?”—was on its way to attracting more than 16,000 votes (an earlier poll about Canada’s regard for war veterans attracted less than half as many). Suffice it to say, Newfoundland MP Bill Matthews, a 10year veteran of federal politics (once famous himself for switching parties), didn’t get the same treatment when he announced his retirement a week earlier.

Patrick Muttart, Doug

prejudices,” says Mark Entwistle, who has been close to Stronach since joining her illfated Tory leadership campaign at the behest of former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Adds University of Toronto political science professor Sylvia Bashevkin, who has authored numerous books on the subject of women in politics: “She has flouted or rejected so many of the traditional assumptions about being a quote-unquote ‘good girl.’ ” Through her, the nation’s ungrateful editorialists had cause to debate the nature of celebrity, affluence, public life, democracy, feminism, civil discourse and what on earth a woman of her status could possibly see in Tie Domi. But so often the discussion hung on the most obvious of angles—Belinda Stronach is, in case you hadn’t noticed, a woman.

in the House of Commons,” Stronach says flatly, in a departure interview at a Toronto hotel. By the numbers, women accounted for just 24-5 per cent of candidates from the five major parties in the last election and just 20.9 per cent of those elected. The Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, Bloc Québécois and Greens vowed this week, at the behest of a group called Equal Voice, to see more women elected to Parliament, but these are certainly not great days for the cause of gender equality in democracy.

With Stronach and Lucienne Robillard set to depart, the Liberals have lost their two biggest female stars. The Conservatives haven’t had a prominent female presence in the House of Commons since Rona Ambrose, once considered a big hitter in cabinet, was demoted for losing control of the environment portfolio. In fact, the most talked-about woman in Canadian politics might be Laureen Harper, the Prime Minister’s wife. And only then because she’s always taking care of another stray cat or dragging John Baird around town.

In the Prime Minister’s Office, the big inside players are almost exclusively male— Finley and Baird dominating discussion. Around Stéphane Dion it is deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy who dominate the narrative. There are obvious and important exceptions on both sides—Liberal whip Karen Redman, prospective MP Martha Hall Findlay, Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton—but the face of Canadian politics is generally marked by stubble.

“In all three sectors—the public bureaucracy, the elected legislature and the backrooms— one can argue that we’ve often seen, in the past decade, either a plateauing or a movement downward from where we might’ve been in the ’80s or ’90s,” Bashevkin says. “We’ve also seen much less media attention and public scrutiny of both that plateau pattern or the downward motion. And very little interrogation of the reasons.”

A FEW GOOD WOMEN: (from top) MP Ruby Dhalla; MP Carolyn Bennett; the always controversial Stronach

Bashevkin speaks highly of Mulroney’s administration—the former prime minister making affirmative action a priority and pro-

moting Pat Carney and Barbara McDougall, for instance. But, under Harper, the focus has instead turned to geographic and territorial attributes.

Beyond that, the questions are many. Some suggest the toxic atmosphere of parliamentary debate discourages women from participating—an argument that seems both plausible and implicitly sexist. Meanwhile, it is impossible to ignore the way in which the Stronach Era was explained over the last week, the word “fling” used numerous times to describe her career. And what are we to make, if anything, of the fact that the last three women to lead major political parties—Kim Campbell, Alexa McDonough and Audrey McLaughlin—seemed to struggle mightily? Is politics just, as one (female) commentator put it last week, a man’s game? And do we want more women in politics to make government more representative of the population (in which case we’ll also need more minorities and more young people)? Or do we believe women will fundamentally improve the debate?

Perhaps slightly more than a ripple then— the Stronach Era left big questions, most of them unanswered. Perhaps because the subject of women in politics is both the most obvious of issues and one of the most complicated.

“That is something I feel a bit sad about, that there’s a lot more work to do,” Stronach says. “But we don’t have enough women leaders in politics and we don’t have enough in business either.”

“If you guys had written about my ties and my shirts, I’d have been humiliated,” says former cabinet minister John Manley. “It’s an unfortunate characteristic of our political discourse that so much of it is so insubstantive.” M