As senior Liberals politely put it, they have a “situation” on their hands. Two months ago, executives of the Thornhill riding association heard rumors that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien intended to appoint former provincial cabinet minister Elinor Caplan as the Liberal candidate in their newly created riding on the outskirts of Metro Toronto —without a democratic nomination process. When party heavy weights would not rule out that possibility, general secretary Rosenda Brown penned a series of pointed protests on behalf of the riding executive. To no avail.
Last week, Chrétien used his powers to designate Caplan and three other women as candidates in the upcoming election.
“The leader wanted to show that he was walking the walk as well as talking the talk,” Caplan declares. Brown is not sure that this is how parties should stride towards gender equality in 1997.
“It’s a hard call because we need women,” she says. “But if they had said, loud and clear, that they needed women in 1993, people would have come up through the grassroots. There is no fairness in politics.”
Few Liberals would question the actual quality of Chrétien’s choices. In addition to Caplan, he nominated two Ontario candidates, Whitby municipal councillor Judi Longfield and Metro Toronto councillor Judy Sgro, and a Vancouver candidate, social worker Sophia Leung—all hard-working political veterans. Fewer Liberals would dispute the Prime Minister’s goal: that 75 of the 301 Liberal candidates in the next election will be women. It is his method that has provoked heated debate. And there may be more controversy ahead. As of March 16, the Liberals calculated that 32 of the 118 nominated Liberal candidates were women, including 20 of the 37 female MPs. When Liberal insiders add up the number of women likely to be nominated over the next few weeks, they predict that Chrétien may have to appoint up to four more candidates. As the Prime Minister conceded in an address to party faithful: “It will be controversial. But I have no regrets. It’s difficult for a woman to come into politics.”
But the Liberals have landed themselves
The Liberals appoint four
squarely in the middle of a conflict between democratic principles and gender equality. There is no doubt that women are underrepresented in Parliament. There are 54 women, including 37 Liberals, in the current 295-seat House of Commons. Chrétien has invoked a clause first inserted in the party rules at the 1992 biennial convention with the approval of 90 per cent of the delegates: the party leader may decide to skip the traditional election for the nomination—and simply appoint the candidate. That clause was largely sparked by the party’s desire to thwart single-issue movements that were seizing control of riding associations. But Chrétien used the clause in 1993 to appoint 14 candidates—among them nine women, four of whom were elected. This time, the Prime Minister said he hopes to intervene in less than nine ridings.
It is never easy to snag the nomination to run for the governing party in a so-called winnable riding. But many Liberals argue that women face more difficulties than men. The campaign itself can cost up to $10,000, because aspirants must often attract new
members to the riding association to vote for them in the nomination battle and women traditionally have less access to such sums. Women are usually saddled with more family responsibilities. And the very process, with its no-holds-barred campaign, may alienate some female contenders. “In the nomination process you push yourself forward,” says Caplan. “That’s very male.” To buttress its case, the party privately distributed 14 ‘Talking Points” to Liberal MPs and candidates last week, which they were to use to defend Chretien’s action. Among them was the slogan, “Equality isn’t about equal treatment, it’s about equal opportunity.”
The approach has provoked rebuttals from party members and political foes. Distressed Vancouver Liberals point out that Leung has lost two nomination battles in the past four years, proving that the party’s grassroots prefers other candidates. In Toronto, candidate Sgro is facing former Liberal MP John Nunziata, who was ousted from the party last year. “This is Soviet-style democracy—the death of democracy in the Liberal party,” says Nunziata, who will run as an independent.
The opposition was equally scathing. The Reform party, which nominated 23 women candidates and elected seven in 1993, repeated its firm stand that all potential candidates, male and female, are equal—and the grassroots must select them. The Conservatives, who nominated 67 women and elected one in 1993, held up the appointments as a glaring indication of Liberal arrogance. “I find it insulting to all women,” says Tory MP Elsie Wayne. The NDP, which elected one of its 113 female nominees in 1993, pointed out that it has slapped a $5,000 spending limit on candidates who are seeking a nomination. And it demands that the riding conduct a thorough search for female candidates before it can hold a nomination meeting. “It is frustrating to hear, ‘Do the ends justify the Liberal means?’ when there are different means to achieve these ends,” says NDP media secretary Hugh Blakeney.
Perhaps the best Liberal response in the face of such attacks is the fact that all four women candidates who were appointed, and won, in 1993 have secured their nominations without help in 1997. One of those MPs, Saskatchewan lawyer Georgette Sheridan, defends the party’s attempts to foster women. “We are at a very awkward stage right now but this is far more resultsoriented than just talking about it,” Sheridan says. She adds that perhaps all parties should re-examine the nomination process. “Anyone who has been around politics knows that it is a membership-sales contest,” she notes. “A thoughtful examination has got to occur.” That is perhaps the only point on which everyone can agree.
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