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BC Election 2013

NDP and Libs Have Plans to Fix Women's Inequality

But there similarities end, as candidates debate differing approaches.

Natascia Lypny 2 May 2013TheTyee.ca

Natascia Lypny is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

When it comes to dealing with women's inequality in British Columbia, the BC NDP and Liberals both are floating new initiatives they say will make a difference.

But all gender equity proposals are not created equal. What the two parties have in mind differ so starkly that one University of British Columbia professor finds it "remarkable."

First came the NDP's election platform, revealed last week, which contained a paragraph promising to reinstate the Ministry of Women's Equality should the party come to power on May 14.

Shortly after, Premier Christy Clark announced the Liberals would create a Women's Economic Council. It would be made up of women who are leaders in various sectors, Clark has said, and its members would be unpaid.

"The difference in the naming of these two different bodies is remarkable to me," said Leonora Angeles, associate professor with the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC.

While Clark's announcement clearly focuses on the economic dimension of women's needs and interests, she said, the Ministry of Women's Equality is informed by the notion that gender equality is the goal for B.C. women.

Angeles is happy to see the two dominant parties paying attention to women's issues this election, but she voiced concern about how effective either initiative might be.

She called the economic council idea "susceptible to patronage politics" and unlikely to represent a broad swath of British Columbian women because participants are unpaid, meaning it will only attract those who can afford to take the time to sit on it.

The proposed ministry could be hampered by sluggish bureaucracy, said Angeles, but could also be the starting point for more democratic decision-making around women's issues. Angeles said she would prefer to see an independent body addressing gender equality -- something along the lines of the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, currently overseen by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Angeles wondered whether either the NDP or the Liberals' proposals would provide adequate representation of all women, who are far from a homogeneous group.

Topic for debate

The differences between the NDP and Liberal approaches surfaced at a women's candidate debate hosted by the University Women's Club of Vancouver on Tuesday night.

Suzanne Anton, Liberal hopeful for Vancouver-Fraserview, said she doesn't see a need for reinstating the Ministry of Women's Equality.

"I go to so many women-serving organization functions, and when I look around those rooms I see so many very capable women who are helping each other; I don't know that government needs to get involved."

NDP incumbent in Vancouver-Kensingston, Mable Elmore, said she wasn't surprised by Anton's dismissal of the ministry, noting that the Liberals have cut funding to women's centres.

"We've seen over 12 years of Liberal policies; really, women have been disproportionately impacted by that," she said.

NDP MLA Jenny Kwan was the minister of Women's Equality when the New Democrats last were in power. The Liberals subsequently dismantled it.

Kwan, who's once again running as the long-time incumbent in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant told The Tyee the ministry will help put a gender lens on government policies and ensure women's issues are tackled across a number of ministries.

Kwan said there are a number of ways in which her party is planning to improve the lives of B.C. women, especially by reversing some of the Liberals' cuts and policies. The NDP's platform includes improvements to the legal aid system; building affordable housing units; creating a Poverty Reduction Strategy; increasing family bonuses and the income assistance rate and allowing for a child exemption; and addressing the recommendations of the Missing Women Inquiry.

She dismissed the Women's Economic Council as not having "a lot of stock."

"We've seen the government establish a whole array of councils and advisory committees," she said. "The question is: What have they done with advice or recommendations that have come from those councils? Not very much."

Small business dreams

The Women's Economic Council would be a volunteer board that advises the premier on ways to improve the livelihoods of female small business owners.

"I think it's really great that Premier Clark is the first one to announce such a thing," said Laurel Douglas, CEO of the Women's Enterprise Centre, to which the Liberal government has invested $100,000.

"She's really leading the way," she said of Clark, though "it would have been nice if it had been announced before the campaign started."

Women own 37 per cent of small businesses in British Columbia, said Douglas, but they experience lower sales and have fewer employees. She believes that giving female entrepreneurs the push they need will lead to a significant contribution to the province's economic development.

Coralee Oakes agrees. The Liberal candidate for Cariboo North has a long history of involvement in chambers of commerce and small business. She sees a province in need of succession planning as a large proportion of business owners are set to retire -- and she thinks women can fill that coming void.

She also points to the Liberals' record of implementing full-day kindergarten, investing in early learning and childcare subsidies, and contributing to the creation of hundreds of licensed childcare spaces as integral to helping female business owners.

"All these things help women because it creates an environment where they can go out ... and follow their dreams, and maybe [their dream] is to start a business."

Make equality a general priority: Track

While Kwan rejected the Liberals' idea for an economic council outright, her fellow New Democrat Elmore didn't go that far.

"I think it's one of the approaches that needs to be taken, but in isolation I don't think it's enough and I don't think it addresses really the range of needs that women have in B.C."

Elmore explained that the NDP tried to develop its platform with an equality framework in mind -- that is, reducing marginalization based on race, gender and class.

It's something UBC professor Angeles wants to see more of in B.C. politics.

"I'd like to see general equality issues and, more broadly, social justice issues really raised as a cross-cutting scheme in election issues."

That view was echoed by Laura Track, legal director for West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF). "We're glad to see women's equality being prioritized in the campaign platform of a major political party in B.C.," Track said of the NDP's proposed Ministry for Women's Equality.

But, she added, "We believe that women's equality should be a priority for all ministries."

Track said the ministry will succeed if it creates a vision in government for a unified push towards social, economic and political equality. She cautions that the ministry will become meaningless if it becomes a "place where women's issues become relegated and forgotten about."

Angeles noted that the most recent public opinion polls show that the NDP are nearly twice as popular with women as the Liberals.

Referring to the gender equality focused proposals from the NDP and BC Liberals, Angeles said, "I think it is really an attempt to attract women to the voting station, on the part of Christy Clark in particular."  [Tyee]

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