Why so few federal election debates on women's issues?

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The Up For Debate campaign recently announced that a federal leadership debate on women's issues is not likely to take place this election cycle due to a "lack of a clear commitment from all political party leaders." This, despite a groundswell of support for the initiative by more than 175 organizations and a petition to support the debate that collected more than 50,000 signatures from Canadians.

Political parties' reticence (or refusal, as the case may be) to participate in women's issues debates is part of a decades-old neoliberal chill put on women's advocacy work in Canada.

Recent calls for a 2015 women's issues debate cite its historical precedent, the 1984 women's issues debate. However, it is worth noting that politicians' reluctance to engage in women's issues debates also has historical precedent. By 1988, a turn toward neoliberal governance in the nation derailed plans for a second women's debate, based on an emerging characterization of women's and other equality-seeking organizations as divisive "special interest groups."

This characterization started to surface in news coverage critical of the first women's debate in 1984, which positioned the sponsoring organization -- the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) -- as an isolated pocket of radical feminist rabble-rousers, a fringe organization of "bad" citizens that further cleaved a national foundation already straining under the demands of multiculturalism, regionalism, and economic recession.

In some reports, women who supported the debate were chastised for seeking "special treatment" based on their gender, rather than relying on ability and merit to become successful citizens. A failure to thrive in a neoliberal state is chalked up to individuals' lack of work ethic, talent, or skill, as opposed to structural forms of discrimination and disadvantage.

In this context, then, social movement organizations, like NAC, became vilified as disruptive special interest groups -- or, as Stuart Hall put it, the "new folk devil" of our times.

In 1988, this neoliberal rationale justified the Conservative party's insistence that the broadcast networks sponsor the proposed second debate, instead of NAC. Not only did this undermine the political capital of the national women's lobby, it also put the fate of the proposed 1988 debate in the hands of the budget-slashed networks.

The CBC had been feeling the effects of Mulroney's economism. The public broadcaster's budget had been cut by $85 million in 1985, with another $20 million reduction slated for 1989. The Conservative party had also called an autumn election that coincided with the networks' lucrative fall television schedule.

How likely was it that the networks would choose to broadcast a leadership debate, deemed to be of "special interest," in place of high-rating sports programs? As CBC Director of Television News and Current Affairs, John Owen remarked to the Toronto Star, "it would be elitist to assume that people wouldn't want to see the World Series."

The broadcasters refused to stage a standalone women's debate, but did agreed to include questions on NAC's four priority issues -- free trade, abortion, child care, and violence against women -- during a marathon, three-hour general issues debate because they "are not peripheral women's issues but are general issues of interest to men as well as women." ( Letter from NAC lawyer Peter Grant to NAC President Lynn Kaye, October 3, 1988 (Canadian Women's Movement Archives, NAC fonds, 696)

Lacking NAC's sponsorship, the 1988 women's issues debate segment lost much of its symbolic power. To compare, NAC had funded and led the planning of the 1984 debate, from shortlisting panelists and soliciting debate questions from Canadian women's groups to reserving space for women to attend in person.

The 1984 broadcast also opened with a prepared statement from then-NAC president, Chaviva Hošek, who characterized the event as "the beginning of a new tradition, a tradition that now takes its natural place in the political process of Canada."

These details, combined with panning camera shots of the hundreds of women in attendance, meant that the 1984 women's issues debate referenced the power and history of the national women's movement and celebrated the debate as a move toward a more deeply democratic political process in Canada.

NAC's exclusion from the 1988 event also meant that the women's issues debate lost its grounding in an informed, feminist political perspective. This culminated in a strange moment when a question's appropriateness came under scrutiny during the women's issues segment.

In a surprising move, NDP leader Ed Broadbent questioned Canadian women's interest in national defense spending. Broadbent's criticism framed women's issues as separate from "hard" policy issues (despite decades of anti-nuclear activism led by the Canadian feminist peace movement).

Perhaps more surprising than Broadbent's challenge was moderator Rosalie Abella's concession that "oblique reference to social issues [in the question] turns out not to be a reference to women's issues" and chastisement of the panelists for the "unexpected intervention."

Despite panlist Pamela Wallin's rejoinder that "we felt women were in fact very interested in these issues and in the spending of defense funds," this moment weakened the place of women's issues in the official political realm by suggesting to viewers how "tricky" women's issues could be -- not even the "objective" media experts could properly identify them.

NAC's proposal for a third leadership debate in 1993 did not move forward, making the 1988 women's issues segment a limp finale to what began as a historic chapter in Canadian political history.

The Conservative caveat transformed the women's issues debate into a political tool to marginalize and disempower the organized women's movement in Canada -- a key strategy used to dismiss oppositional voices from national political discourse in the formative years of Canadian neoliberalism. This marked the onset of a 30-year cooling of relations between the federal leadership and women's groups; years characterized by federal defunding measures that devastated the cohering bodies of the national women's movement, like NAC, and gutted government programs doing research on women's advocacy.

That said, even if a televised leadership debate on women's issues is not realized during the current election cycle, as all signs indicate, the momentum and support generated for such an initiative by campaigns like Up For Debate signals a thaw in the neoliberal chill put on women's advocacy work in Canada. 

Samantha C. Thrift is an Instructor in the University of Calgary's Department of Communication, Media and Film. Her research studies the social and political implications of feminist media, and she has published on the 1984 Canadian leadership debate on women's issues, feminist humour and the 2012 Binders Full of Women meme, as well as the hashtag activism of #YesAllWomen.

Photo: flickr/ Siebuhr

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