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Do Women Like Stephen Harper?

Last time around, if as many women had voted for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as did men, the Tories might have gained a majority government, according to some researchers.

So what have Conservatives done to close the gender gap this time? Harper’s critics point to many opportunities missed. Among them:

Testosterone in the Cabinet. When the PM reshuffled his cabinet in August of 2007, he promoted among others the infamous ladies’ man Maxime Bernier (foreign affairs). But as noted at the time, women in the new cabinet remained at seven out of 29, and this time were handed weaker portfolios. Just before Harper made that move, polls showed only 29 per cent of women supporting the Conservatives, versus 39 per cent of men.

Hobbling Status of Women Canada. Slashing 43 per cent of the organization’s fund outraged feminist activists like the publisher of One Woman, One Blog, who fumed the $5 million cut was “enough money to force the organization to close 12 of its 16 regional offices across the country”. When the Harper put the money back it just further activated the feminist network because, as the same blogger wrote: “Those $5 million dollars have since been restored, as a result of a huge public outcry, but advocacy work is still off-limits to anyone seeking SWC Women's Program money.”

Shutting down the Court Challenges Program. Feminist activists were similarly galvanized by Harper’s abolition of government funding for groups pursuing rights complaints in the courts. "Women's essential inequality remains entrenched in Canadian and Québec culture," concluded The Ad Hoc Coalition for Women's Equality and Human Rights.

Fewest female candidates. This election, the Liberals are running the most women candidates, and the NDP has more running in winnable ridings. The Conservatives? Dead last among the five major parties. One in five Tory candidates are female, which, to be fair, does put them ahead of females running for the NeoRhinos (14.2 per cent) and Christian Heritage (10 per cent.)

Is the Harper campaign concerned? Not judging from a September report in the Hamilton Spectator: “Campaign co-chair Senator Marjory LeBreton says there's no specific strategy to target women. Back in the war room, staffers can't even provide an accurate list of the party's women candidates. The roster of 63 ridings where the Tories claimed they were running female candidates included three where the party's candidate was male.”

Just before this election, an Ipsos Reid poll showed overall, more women were likely to vote Liberal, while more men were likely to vote Conservative. Harper’s sweater vest ads were aimed at closing that gender divide and, as the economy tightens, the PM’s advisors are betting Tory policies will resonate with women worried about managing family budgets. But with day care a big ticket item in many households, the Liberals and New Dems are countering with rival programs.

The lesson from 2006 seems to be, women don’t vote in a block, but collectively they can deny a majority government.

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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