Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien has never been my favorite politician. When I lived in Ottawa, I volunteered with the campaign of Alex Munter (the mayoral candidate who should have won), and came very close to tears of sadness and disbelief on the night O'Brien won the mayoral race he never should have entered. I have often said he is the George Bush of municipal politics, so similar is O'Brien's shoot-from-the-hip, proud-to-be-a-political-simpleton, my-money-got-me-into-politics style to that of the former President.
But you have to hand it to him for shooting from the hip during his recent criminal trial. Not many men in politics in the year 2009 would have the utter and complete lack of awareness to call an electoral campaign what it really is: a "big swinging dick contest."Justifying his sleezy deal with fellow mayoral candidate Terry Kilrea (that Kilrea would bow out of the race, in exchange for a job on the national parole board) O'Brien used that choice expression, and I sort of love him for it. Even though it took a few months, the "big swinging dick" comment is helping surface the trial's implications for women in politics.
Last week, Mr. Justice Douglas Cunningham of the Ontario Superior Court issued his ruling in the trial. He reasoned that the testimony of Lisa McLeod, an Ottawa MPP carried "little weight", since she had a lot going on in her life "...commuting regularly to Toronto for her work, leaving her husband and child in Ottawa." While on the stand, Ms. McLeod was questioned by the defence about a range of family issues with no relevance to the trial, successfully convincing the judge that she was distracted when she gave her statement to police. None of the male witnesses, some of whom presumably also have children, were similarly questioned.
The judge and the defence disregarded the possibility that Ms. McLeod's husband is an active father and husband, or that other male witnesses are also active fathers and husbands and would therefore have similar levels of "distraction" to a working mom. The judge also ignores the fact that women, and men, all over this country successfully balance the raising of children with full participation in society and full-time employment.
The Ottawa Citizen published an editorial the day after the decision, linking both O'Brien's swinging dick and the judge's dismissal of McLeod's testimony to the sidelining of women in politics. In particular, the Citizen argued that O'Brien's crude comments "equated power with virility, toughness and aggression" and women, who are perceived not to have those traits, are left out in the cold when that's how politics is seen to work. The Globe and Mail took issue with the judge's comments on today's front page, highlighting the poor working conditions for young women in politics in Canada, and linking attitudes like the judge's to women's low representation in politics.
To these comments, I would add a general comment about our less-than-energetic condemnation of influence-peddling in the context of this trial.The type of activity Mr. O'Brien participated in, the "patronage" so many observers have called "politics as usual," is almost always politics for the usual suspects, politics for the powerful. Women, and other under-represented groups, aren't as likely to benefit from the types of partisan networks that Mr. O'Brien made use of because we are far less likely to have either the networks or the influence. It's a chicken and egg question: it's tough to get the networks because we, as a group, have not been traditionally represented as players in formal politics, and because the culture of politics remains both masculine (in behaviors, attitudes and beliefs) and male (the vast majority of elected officials are men), but neither the culture nor the involvement of women will change unless we get the networks. According to Equal Voice, the leading non-partisan organization promoting women's participation in politics, women's lack of such networks is one of the key factors keeping women out of politics.
The federal parliament, provincial legislatures, and municipal councils remain primarily white and male in this country. Women make up 52 per cent of the population, and 22 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. Arguing that women don't want to be in politics and there isn't anything we can do about it is just unimaginative and wrong, and the implications for women, men and children of women's under-representation in politics are too important to be laissez-faire about its solutions. Opening up the doors of politics to women and other under-represented groups will require fair and transparent application of rules to limit the abuse of these networks. The "that's just how it is" refrain, and our collective shrug about this trial, reflect not only resignation about the practices in politics, but also resignation about the players in politics.
Disgusted as I am by the judge's reasons and by the line of questioning pursued by the defence, and amused/ confused by Larry O'Brien's candor about his private parts, perhaps this more blatant macho-ism and discrimination is just what we need to start a real debate about how to correct this gross imbalance in our democratic system. Better late than never I suppose.