Today's politics: Is it a man's game?

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Some do say politics is a man's game. The role of women is often overlooked and undervalued — and our approach is often not given credit.

As we approach what could be the closing act of the 38th Parliament, I have been reflecting on the experience — both as House Leader for the NDP and as a feminist woman Member of Parliament.

In the past few weeks, as the functioning of Parliament has became much more fractious, I have been sitting on the edge of my seat in the House of Commons, watching the insults fly like ping pong balls, each side roaring when they claim victory and believing they scored a point, that no-one outside understands anyway. Back home, in Vancouver, a woman said to me, how can you stand that place — it's so juvenile. And I nodded my head and thought how I am so inextricably wound up in its drama and plot, and a script that seems as if it was written in advance by someone else.

Don't get me wrong — I believe the political process is extremely important, and what happens in Parliament is extremely important, and matters to our everyday lives. And I want to be there — making a difference for my constituents in East Vancouver.

But, these last few weeks have been especially trying and many people have told me how alienated they feel about the games and antics going on.

Several years ago, I became actively involved in the New Politics Initiative (NPI), a movement both within and outside the NDP, seeking transformative change to engage broad social movements and the NDP in a new kind of political process to unify progressive political activism. It was based in part on a desire to shake off the cynicism about electoral politics, and breathe new life into politics.

When the NPI, as an organized group, ended its work last year, I believe we felt we had engaged many people in a genuine discussion about the progressive political process, both within and outside the NDP. So it seems ironic to see myself slap bang in the belly of the beast, in the middle of a political culture in this minority Parliament, that embodies much of what we sought to change. It's a political culture where crass maneuvering, one-upmanship and back-room deals are the order of the day.

Some would say it's a man's game and I have to admit, I have questioned my role as NDP House Leader in this environment, and examined what takes place and thought about what needs to be done differently. The role of women is often overlooked and undervalued — and our approach is often not given credit.

The NDP/Liberal agreement to improve the federal budget by securing a strong investment for housing, education, the environment and foreign aid, is a good outcome of this minority Parliament and is a result of Jack Layton's commitment to focus on real things that count for people. And yes, it wasn't lost on me, that I was in the back rooms, so to speak, hammering out the deal, on the phone, via email and in person with the government House Leader Tony Valeri! We got a good agreement, and I believe our straightforward approach was part of the success.

But day by day, as Parliament continues to teeter on the brink, the level of brinkmanship and bullying is increasingly bitter and personal. The other day, I watched Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois, his expression furious, pointing his finger (literally) at the NDP, because he had been caught out, voting to bring down the government, before the new Veterans Bill was approved, which days earlier he had agreed to support.

Mr. Duceppe and Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, I particularly single out, for their self-indulgent tactics and winner-take-all approach.

Prime Minister Paul Martin, for his part, is clinging to power and attempting to maintain composure while his once powerful party collapses in testimony.

The domination of male testosterone political routines is, in no small part, what is playing out in this Parliament right now. It was always there, of course, most visible in the daily Question Period, but now it is the tour de force and it's getting worse.

It is a debilitating political environment that tarnishes all of us — all 307 MPs — as the public watches the debacle, reinforcing the cynicism and lack of faith in our political process.

The patriarchal nature of the political system itself is harmful and contributes to the cynicism. By patriarchal, I mean politics that is male-dominated, in the sense that there are a majority of men represented in political leadership. But this also refers to a male way of doing things — which, too often, is still how we measure power and success. It is not just sexism, but a sexist way of thinking, an institutionalized sexism, that pervades every level of decision making in Parliament. Patriarchal politics hurts men too — it is a way of thinking and acting that centres around dominance.

I attended a national women's conference a couple of weeks ago, and participated in a panel of women elected representatives, where we described our work and the environment we work in. I was quite horrified when it came to questions and comments, and one woman in the workshop, said — based on what she had heard — she could see now why she would never consider going into politics. The workshop had been intended to encourage women to run! Later on, another woman asked why we didn't have harassment policies, as most workplaces do, and I have to admit, I had never thought about it in terms of Parliament, because I am so conditioned to what takes place there.

A woman MP said to me the other day that most of the women are still working hard on committees and trying to get something accomplished, and there are male MPs in that category too. But it's trying and frustrating when you see all the theatrics going on around you and there is no sense of accomplishment about what you came to Parliament to do.

This Parliament will end, no doubt about that, and a new one will emerge, and the attention will be on which party(ies) have a controlling number of seats. But beyond that lies a deeper question of ethics, integrity and performance, that demands a response both individually and within the institution of Parliament as a whole, and our respective political parties.

Voters will get to pass their own judgment on Election Day when it comes, but it is incumbent upon each of us as elected representatives to examine what we do and how we act.

I'd really like to see a new Parliament, whatever its make up, embody some feminist principles of working. What are they? Well, it's pretty basic stuff really — respect, room for consensus, and cutting out the sexism and dominance. I was pretty dismayed at some of the sexist commentary in reaction to Belinda Stronach's switch to the Liberals. It's so unnecessary, and demeaning to all women.

We need more progressive feminist women in Parliament, and feminist men too, who aren't afraid to act differently, and still get their political points across with intelligence and passion. I am not advocating some sort of bland House of Commons, where we all agree with each other. There are sharp and real differences between the parties and what we stand for. But we can do our politics differently, minus the bravado and the attack-and-destroy attitude that is so often displayed now.

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