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If Ottawa wants more women in politics, there's an easy solution

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Canada has a democratic deficit that is fairly widely acknowledged. The "first past the post" electoral system denies the majority of people a voice in decision-making. We also know that minority groups are badly underrepresented at all stages of decision making, with marginalized groups, people living with disabilities, and the poor most affected.

Correcting all of this is a monumental task, but one that needs to begin now. One of the most obvious actions, because it affects a large population, would be to enact a fairly simply tool to include more women in parliament.

Canada has a terrible record with electing women to the House of Commons. Out of a ranking of 185 positions, Canada comes as the 61st country on the list with women accounting for only 26 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.

We might expect to come after progressive and wealthy countries like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark, but it's something of a surprise to be so far behind Rwanda, Bolivia, Mozambique, Mexico, Argentina, and Portugal. If these and other countries that struggle so hard with economic and political problems can be more representative why can't we?

The simple answer is because it hasn't been important in Canada, at least up until now.

At this moment in time there is a good possibility for change. Canada has a prime minister who frankly calls himself a feminist and other members of Parliament are not afraid of this label either. One of these is Kennedy Stewart (NDP Burnaby South) who has introduced a private member's bill into the House of Commons called the Candidate Gender Equity Act.

This bill would tie the subsidies each party receives from government to the proportion of women candidates in the election. Currently political parties are granted up to 50 per cent of their election expenses by the government. If the Candidate Gender Equity Act is approved, parties that did not select a roughly equal number of men and women to run in an election (a 10 per cent difference is allowed), then their subsidy would be reduced.

The way it would work isn't complex, but bear with me: If the difference between the number of male and female candidates on a party's candidate list is more than the allowable 10 per cent, then the reduction in subsidy would be one-fourth of the difference beyond the 10 per cent buffer. So with a 20 per cent discrepancy, the reduction in funding would be 2.5 per cent of the total normally allowed (20 per cent - 10 per cent buffer, divided by four = 2.5 per cent). This potential reduction in public subsidy provides an incentive for parties to run more women candidates.

Clearly nominating an equal number of women and men as candidates does nothing to guarantee that the final result will be equality in the election itself. Still, it is an important beginning and it is a process that has been successful elsewhere.

In 2012 the Irish parliament passed a similar bill, although with a smaller requirement, since Ireland had so far to go with only 16 per cent of the Dail Eireaan comprised of women at the time. But the results were impressive. The proportion of women elected increased 40 per cent in the last election.

There is good reason to be optimistic that the results could be similarly good in Canada. Various experiences in past elections show that the main problem is that women do not get the nomination. When they do, they are as likely to get elected as men.

It is also clear that appealing to the good will of individual political parties has very mixed success. Some parties may have enough money so that this will not be a penalty, but at least there will be attention paid to how far off the expected norm they are.

This is a bill that should be passed easily. A feminist has proposed it and the party with the power in the House of Commons is led by a feminist.

And, after all, it is 2016.

Marjorie Griffin Cohen is Professor Emeritus, Political Science and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University, B.C.

Jeannette Ashe is the Chair of the Department of Political Science at Douglas College, B.C.

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