An MP from British Columbia is hoping for long-shot success with a private member’s bill that would level financial penalties against Canadian political parties that do not run gender-balanced slates of candidates. Kennedy Stewart, the NDP MP for Burnaby South, introduced bill C-237 in May, and on Thursday evening, MPs will vote on whether to send it to committee or kibosh it. Stewart argues his proposal is not a quota but rather an incentive designed to nudge the glacially slow rate of change in the political representation of women in Canada.
“It means all the parties are free to nominate people however they want. So it doesn’t actually interfere with the internal workings of the party, which is also I think important here,” he says. “It probably isn’t going to achieve gender parity right away, but it will definitely move things forward.” Currently, 26 per cent of MPs are women; Canada ranks 64th in the world, and that ranking has been slipping.
Stewart’s private member’s bill proposes that parties lose a slice of their election expense reimbursement proportional to the gap between male and female candidates on their slate. His formula means, for example, that in the 2015 election, the Conservatives, with 20 per cent women candidates, would have been penalized $2.3 million; the Liberals, with 31 per cent women, would have given up $1.5 million; the NDP, with 43 per cent women, would have forfeited $148,700; and the Green Party—with 39 per cent women—would have lost $58,600. “It’s not a quota because they could totally ignore it. The Conservatives could decide, ‘We’re going to run zero women candidates in the next election and we’re just going to take the financial hit,’” Stewart says. “In countries where there’s quotas, if you don’t hit a particular number, you’re actually not allowed to stand in elections.”
In 2000, France instituted a similar measure to what C-237 proposes. At first, political parties simply paid the financial penalties and ignored the requirement to run more female candidates. But over time, public expectation shifted so that it became politically untenable to flout the law. As a result, France went from 11 per cent women among its national representatives in 1999 to 26.2 per cent currently—ranking it just ahead of Canada.
Private members’ bills typically have a slim chance of becoming law, but Stewart remains optimistic in part because he’s had good luck with them before. In the last Parliament, he put forward a motion on electronic petitions and convinced enough Conservative backbenchers to support it that it passed. “I put a lot of thought into my private members’ bills,” he says. “I’m not saying others don’t, but I try to put forward things that have a good chance of passing.”
C-237 will be a free vote, leaving members to vote as they wish. However, in May, a briefing note was leaked in which the Liberal cabinet was advised not to support the bill. The government has raised concerns ranging from the unfair impact on very small parties—potentially a non-issue, given the penalty is tied to election expense reimbursement, and only the four national parties and the Bloc Québécois qualified for that after the 2015 election—to the fact that Justin Trudeau’s government has pledged to overhaul Canada’s electoral system, so it doesn’t make sense to tinker with things now. “This specific initiative is not the best way forward,” Monsef said in the House in May. “As we look to evolve our democratic institutions, we will seek ways to encourage the inclusion of women, persons of other genders, and all individuals who are currently under-represented to be represented in politics.”
A government official said the Liberals believe the bill could create problems under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if it is passed. The government is concerned that the proposal could create financial and political incentives to refuse the nomination of qualified candidates based on their gender—interfering with the Charter right to “be qualified for membership” in the House—or limit the freedom of association of parties and riding associations because it would curtail their ability to select their own candidates, among other issues.
Stewart, however, says he sought advice from House of Commons legal council, who found his proposal was not only constitutional but could improve representation and gender equity. “They are really reaching for reasons,” he says of the government’s stance. “And there really are no concrete reasons to vote against this.”
Monsef, for her part, points instead to initiatives like her government’s commitment to “making the House of Commons more family-friendly,” and to funding and a call for proposals from Status of Women Canada for projects that would boost women’s participation in public and political life. “There is more we can do to broaden to build a more inclusive democratic system,” she said.