If the only choice for women in the federal election were Stephen Harper or Paul Martin, then Martin is certainly the devil we know. His reign as Canada’s Minister of Finance represented 10 lost years for women’s equality. The changes introduced by his budgets radically transformed Canada’s post war social programs in ways that undermined womenâe(TM)s economic and social rights. It’s small wonder that the NDP is benefiting from the gender gap in women’s voting intentions.

Martin’s budgets were not just about bringing Canada’s deficit under control; they were also about restructuring social entitlements in ways that endangered the security of the most disadvantaged Canadians and removed social supports essential for women’s economic autonomy.

A prime example was the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan in the 1995 Martin budget. Put in place by the Pearson Liberals in 1966, CAP gave Canadians an entitlement to social assistance based on need and provided women who had no other means of support a way to take themselves and their children out of abusive relationships. In eliminating the social rights for the poor reflected in the federal conditions attached to the social transfer to the provinces, the Liberals paved the way for the mean-spirited welfare programs of right-wing provincial governments.

The Liberal changes to unemployment insurance, including the shift to basing eligibility on hours worked rather than weeks worked, had a negative impact on all vulnerable workers, disproportionately hurting women, young people and people of colour. Under Liberal changes to EI, only 39 per cent of the unemployed actually got to collect benefits in 2001, down from 57 per cent when they took office, which was already a reduction from 74 per cent in 1987. In 1994, the EI coverage rates for unemployed women were four points lower than those for men; by 2001 this had grown to 11 points. The gender gap reached 15 points in the childbearing and early child rearing age groups.

The extension of maternity/parental leave under Employment Insurance to a total of 50 weeks stands out as an important exception to the overall lack of progress on women’s equality measures under three Liberal mandates. Unfortunately, the other changes to EI resulted in many women of child-bearing age losing their entitlement to EI benefits and therefore to paid maternity and parental leave.

The Liberals eliminated the Canadian Labour Force Development Board, which had given organizations of women, people of colour and people with disabilities a small voice in training policy. The devolution of responsibility for most training to the provinces put an end to federal funding for programs targeted to women and weakened the network of women’s community-based training organizations. The Liberals also pursued a long, costly and ultimately unsuccessful court challenge in an attempt to avoid meeting the federal government’s equal pay obligations to its own employees.

The 1993 Liberal Red Book promised a significant expansion of funding for child care through cost-sharing arrangements with the provinces. Using the excuse of the lack of provincial buy-in, the promise fell victim to Paul Martin’s 1995 budget and did not get back on the federal political agenda until after Martin resigned as Finance Minister.

The 2003 federal budget committed $25 million for early childhood development services for 2003/04 with the promise of an additional $875 million over the following four years, an amount that was increased slightly in the 2004 budget. Martin’s election promise of $5 billion over five years to begin to build a national child-care system modeled on Quebec’s is welcome, but his record makes many women skeptical that he will deliver.

Women’s organizations were strongly critical of the Liberals for failing to live up to the 1993 Red Book promise to fund child-care services and shocked by the impact of Martin’s 1995 federal budget on social programs. The Liberals response to this criticism was to cut and restructure funding to organizations promoting women’s equality. After their re-election in 1997, they eliminated core funding and instead provided a reduced amount of project-by-project funding that undermined women’s organizations as autonomous advocates for women’s equality. Feminist services promoting policies to end male violence against women were told that they were part of the social welfare delivery system and should look to the provincial not the federal government for funding.

Given the Liberal record over three mandates, Paul Martin has a long way to go to demonstrate that he can be trusted on women’s equality. The Liberals may be better than the new Conservative devils women don’t know, but that isn’t saying much and will not be good enough for many women.