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Can We Elect a Woman?

Carole James now must survive where "alpha males" vie "for control of a baboon group." To win, she'll have to change B.C.'s political culture.

Paul Ramsey 28 Nov

Carole James won't get any time to relax and savour last weekend's victory at the NDP convention. Ahead of her are some daunting tasks. 

She must restore the NDP's credibility as a party, a party that not only wants to be a forceful opposition but also desires to return to government.  That job is tough enough, but even more difficult could be the task of convincing British Columbia voters to choose a woman as their next Premier.

It shouldn't be that way--not in twenty-first century Canada; gender discrimination is supposed to be as passé as hoop skirts and saddle shoes.  Not so, according to George Gibault, a political operative who worked for both the federal Progressive Conservatives and BC's Socred Party.  He recently wrote that: "the facts have led me to conclude, most reluctantly, that Canadian voters are prejudiced against female party leaders."

Campbell's female trouble

At first glance, it looks like James's gender could be an advantage.  After all, Gordon Campbell is--to put it mildly--not well liked by women.  A recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that 64% of women disapproved of his performance as Premier. 

And Campbell has not just moved women's issues to the back burner; he has taken them off the political stove entirely.  Day care services have been slashed, pay equity legislation has been repealed, and women's centres and anti-violence programs are being cut or closed down completely. 

However, women political leaders who have been victorious at the polls are hard to find.  In 1993, Canada's only woman Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, was handed the helm of the Progressive-Conservative's floundering ship after Brian Mulroney took to the lifeboats.  The ship went down; only two MP's survived.  In British Columbia, Rita Johnson, the province's first and so far only woman Premier, took the remnants of the mighty Socred machine from government to a third place showing in 1991.

Maybe the problem is the very nature of how political contests are fought.  Mr. Gibault describes it as looking "more like a contest between alpha males for control of a baboon troop . . . than a town meeting where people meet to find cooperative or consensual solutions to joint problems."

Even a cursory look at the testosterone-driven BC Legislature shows how apt Mr. Gibault's description is. In a famous legislative prank, Joy MacPhail--aided and abetted by women MLAs from all parties--once placed a wind-up bouncing toy that looked like a miniature penis on the desk of an NDP minister during a televised legislative debate.  Some male MLAs and commentators were all huffy and outraged, but a prancing penis is a pretty good symbol for the behaviour of many a strutting male in the Legislature.

In British Columbia's polarized, confrontational politics, a chippy, aggressive style is expected and praised by political commentators.  It is a style that many MLAs, women particularly, find personally distasteful and politically unproductive, but it's a style that draws both attention and media praise. 

Quieter approach

That style is not Carole James'. She is a quiet consensus builder not an invective-spewing, in-your-face antagonist. Her quiet style served her well in the BC School Trustees Association; the province's school trustees found her leadership both effective and admirable, and they chose her as their president for a record five years in a row. 

Her hardest job as the new leader of the NDP will be to convince political observers and commentators that a quieter, more thoughtful style would be a welcome change in BC's political debate and in the Premier's office. Most voters are thoroughly sick of BC's cheap-shot politics, but the guys in the press gallery still prefer politicians that act more like hockey goons than winners of the Lady Bing trophy.

Unless we wean ourselves from that perception of how political leaders ought to act, we are, as Mr. Gibault says "doomed to an endless succession of males who . . . act more like gangland bosses than prime ministers or premiers."

Paul Ramsey is a former NDP MLA and Cabinet Minister, now a visiting professor in the Political Science Program at UNBC. A version of this column appeared in the Prince George Citizen.  [Tyee]

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