The launch of Harry Lali’s campaign for the leadership of the B.C. NDP last week put the party’s gender provisions in the spotlight, after the Nicola-Fraser MLA called for the elimination of what he called “equity quotas” for elections.
Prior to the 2009 election, the NDP set a goal for 30 percent of nominated candidates to be women or minorities, according to North Island MLA Claire Trevena.
Lali called this quota “reverse discrimination” last week and said he would welcome “older, white males” to join his campaign and the NDP.
“I think we need to empower women and equity groups through incentive-based and target-based approaches, but not through setting of quotas,” he told the Straight following his leadership announcement on January 6.
“Equity quotas are anti-democratic and discriminate, specifically against older, white males, and as leader I would welcome back older, white males into our NDP family.”
But as discussion about the gender provisions continues, some say the quotas serve a critical purpose in encouraging more women to run for political positions.
The debate comes as the B.C. NDP leadership race, which is just beginning to get off the ground, has yet to produce any potential female candidates.
Veteran political observer Norman Ruff said it’s concerning that no women candidates have yet to emerge in the NDP contest, while two women are participating in the B.C. Liberal leadership race.
“Here’s a party that prides itself on being very strong on...gender-related issues, but there is not a single woman’s name that I’ve heard mentioned as a possible contender,” Ruff told the Straight by phone.
Kennedy Stewart, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of public policy, conducted a study of women NDP candidates in the 2005 election for an upcoming article in the journal Party Politics.
He found that while the number of women wanting to run as NDP candidates was comparable to men, women were five times less likely than men to win nominations.
“Mr. Lali has suggested perhaps the NDP should give other incentives to encourage women candidates, but our findings suggest that this wouldn’t help at all,” Stewart told the Straight by phone.
Stewart said having gender equity quotas in place is “the only thing that works” to encourage more women to run.
“The last election, where the NDP had this, 49 percent of their candidates were women,” Stewart said. “It definitely worked. The problem is, a lot of these women won in seats that were not winnable. But that’s something, when you keep these quotas in place, eventually it’ll balance out and you’ll have half of the NDP MLAs will be women.”
Trevena said despite some concerns about the system when it was introduced in the last election, the quota seemed to be successful in bringing more women into the provincial ranks.
“We clearly got more women running. We got more women elected,” Trevena told the Straight by phone. “The concerns are always that...the best candidate will come forward, whether that’s a man or a woman. But it’s proven time and again that it takes a woman a lot longer to decide to run.”
The rule is currently being reviewed by an NDP committee.
Trevena, who has acted as NDP critic for childcare, early childhood development and women’s issues, said encouraging women to run for politics is “a huge challenge for any party”.
“I think that is something that every party is aware of and every party’s trying to address, of how we actually get women wanting to run for elected office, wanting to take part,” Trevena said.
“Women don’t think of themselves in the same way that men often do, that they could run and win a nomination,” she added.
Trevena noted that it’s often still women who are taking on the role of caregiver to their children.
“In many different reasons, you see that women just don’t take that step of actually running for politics,” she said.
She said other incentives need to be created to encourage women to run, such as having female politicians mentor other women, or addressing the need for childcare for mothers who want to run for politics.
“We’ve got to address basics like that, and that’s the same for all working women, and all working families,” she said. “We’ve got to look at how we ensure we provide those supports.”
You can follow Yolande Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/yolandecole.