Up For Debate

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The decision by Up For Debate  to cancel its planned debate on women’s issues is very unfortunate. This coalition of 175 groups that collectively represents some four million Canadians had been working for months to organize a debate wanting, “to see party leaders explain how they plan to build a more equal Canada for us all, and make meaningful commitments to change women’s lives for the better, at home and around the world.” 

 They have called on all Canadian political parties to:

1) Get serious about ending violence against women and girls;

2) Take action to end women’s economic inequality; and

3) Support women’s leadership.

As Up For Debate has pointed out, the only national debate ever held on women’s issues in Canada was over 30 years ago (with the participation of Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney, and John Turner). One would like to imagine that such a discussion would take place in the course of every election campaign and not just once in a generation. There are certainly many critically important topics that need to be addressed, and Canadians should have an opportunity to hear what the position of political leaders is on these issues of importance to Canadian women — and men — before heading to the polls.

Pulling the plug

Yet, the debate was cancelled on August 24 after the organizers were unable to secure the participation of all five leaders of the major political parties.

It is important to understand that the principle responsibility for this failure lies with Stephen Harper who indicated that he would simply not participate. As the Toronto Star reported, when asked why Harper would not take part, Conservative party spokesperson Stephen Lecce replied:

“We are doing more debates than ever. We look forward to sharing with Canadians our plan to keep Canada safe and our economy strong.”

Readers can judge for themselves how satisfactory such a response is.

Thomas Mulcair and Catherine PinasSubsequently, party spokesperson Anne McGrath indicated that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair would not attend, in keeping with his position that he won’t participate in a debate in which the prime minister stays away, even though Mulcair was the first party leader to initially express support for the women’s issues debate.

All this begs the question, should the opposition parties continue with a debate in the absence of the prime minister? Who tunes in and who tunes out if the PM is AWOL? How meaningful can a ‘debate’ even be if the person responsible for government policy isn’t present? Does it serve Stephen Harper’s agenda to not show up and leave the opposition parties arguing amongst themselves, thereby looking like also-rans? Or can (say) an empty chair be left conveying the fact that the Prime Minister is missing in action? All these points are worth considering.

Since the cancellation of the debate, organizers are looking at other ways to highlight women’s issues in the election campaign including town hall meetings and one-on-one interviews with the party leaders that would be released on video, ideas that the NDP has said Mulcair would participate in “enthusiastically and with pride.”

Suppressing the vote

Andrew NikiforukIn his excellent recent article Whew, What a Turn Off! Andrew Nikiforuk focuses on the divisive, polarizing electoral tactics that the Harper Conservatives have honed to icy perfection. Television ads that focus on personal attacks, robocalls, propaganda that deliberately misleads, tactics that promote fear — a ghastly potpourri of vote-suppressing tactics. The objective is to tar and tarnish rather than engage in a balanced consideration of social, environmental, or economic policies. To make engaging in the political process so distasteful that many people simply stay away. And those whose votes are “suppressed” are preponderantly the young, the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, and the weak — those who are, and who will be in the future, maximally affected by the Conservative’s neoliberal austerity agenda.

And the process is very effective. In the 2011 federal election 39 per cent of Canadians did precisely that — they didn’t bother showing up at the ballot box. This isn’t an unfortunate consequence of the way politics is conducted by the Harper Conservatives — it is the objective of the exercise. As the pool of voters shrinks, the proportionate importance of the Conservative’s “base” grows. Those micro-targeted constituencies that the Conservative’s CIMS database relentlessly tracks. For if the party machine can GOTV (get out the vote) of the base, it doesn’t matter how unpopular the Harper Conservatives are in the country. Simply suppress the vote of those who disagree with you, splinter the support of the opposition parties, and GOTV. Presto! You can win every time, even if — as current polling levels indicate — 71 per cent of Canadians oppose you. It’s a winning formula made in hell.

The gaping gender gap

This is the larger political lens through which this issue needs to be viewed. Should the debate on women’s issues have proceeded even without Stephen Harper? Readers can judge for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Nothing plays more effectively into the hand of the Harper Conservatives than not being publicly held accountable for all the failures of their policies to address the concerns of Canadian women. For instance: 

• To tackle the economic inequality of women. Canadian women still earn on average $0.82 cents for every $1.00 earned by a man. In some sectors such as the sciences ($0.94) and arts, culture, and sports ($0.88) the ratio is far better, however, in others such as sales and service ($0.57), primary industry ($0.49), and health services ($0.47) it is far worse. Canada ranks eleventh amongst OECD countried in gender income equality.

Gender Income Gap

• Women have far less political power than men. In the 41st Parliament only 16.9 per cent of Conservative MPs were women (compare this to 38.8 per cent female caucus of the NDP). At present only 19.6 per cent of nominated Conservative candidates are women comapred to 43 per cent of NDP candidates, 31.5 per cent of Liberals, and 31 per cent of Greens. They also have far less economic power. Women comprise only six per cent of members of boards of directors of listed Canadian companies, one of the lowest levels in the OECD, and 42 per cent of listed companies have no women on their boards whatsoever.

Violence still haunts the lives of many women, who are 11 times more likely to experience sexual victimization than are men and are three times more likely to be stalked. Fifty per cent of women report experiencing at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16, and it is estimated than fewer than 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police. 

Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women• Furthermore, as the demands for a national inquiry on the 1,181 missing and murdered aboriginal women indicate, the difficulties faced by Canadian women overall are magnified a hundredfold by First Nations women. As NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said in Winnipeg on August 20:

“Do you think that if 1,200 women had been murdered or had gone missing in Ottawa, we’d need the United Nations to tell us to have an inquiry? It would have happened a long time ago. This is about racism, that’s what this is about.” 

To be invisible in regard to these issues of concern to women is clearly what the Conservative Party desires. It prefers instead to, “[share] with Canadians our plan to keep Canada safe and our economy strong.” Nothing would please them more than to have a debate in which the focus is on differences between opposition parties rather than on the Conservative’s own shortcomings. If that splinters support for the opposition parties, then so much the better! All this helps suppress the vote and shirks the government of responsibility to be accountable to Canadians for what it has done, and failed to do.

What to do?

No un-invited, un-vetted, un-searched ordinary Canadian can possibly break into the hermetically sealed bubble that is the Conservative election campaign. It will continue to be a pep talk in an echo chamber. The Conservative party machine only reaches outside of this to run attack ads.

Those concerned with bettering the lives of Canadian women need to take the issue to everyone — that is to say, the 71 per cent of the Canadian populace who don’t have their fingers in their ears. The debate needs to happen on the ground and in the political streets. Not about whether addressing women’s issues should be done, but how to do it and how quickly it can be done. We need to create a society where every Canadian woman stands on a level playing field with her fellow male citizens.

[Update: Up For Debate has issued a media release  (August 25, 2015) that says (in part): “Up for Debate has agreement from the New Democratic Party, the Greens, the Liberals and the Bloc to have leaders participate in one on one interviews, with questions focused exclusively on women. The exclusive interviews will be released on September 21st at a live event at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre, along with comment and analysis.”]

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...