By James Marshall
Here’s the pitch:
“Would you consider running for office? It’ll mean quitting your existing job, or at least taking several months of leave without pay. You won’t get paid to run for office though, so you’ll have to cover your own bills. Also you’ll need to beg your friends and family to donate tens of thousands of dollars to cover the costs of actually running a campaign. During that campaign you’ll likely be subjected to incredibly toxic abuse, both online and in person. Opposing parties will likely send staff to dig up every stupid thing you’ve ever said online, even if it was a dozen years ago. People on the street might spit on you, accusing you of trying to ruin society or even of just ‘splitting the vote’. Your gender, ethnic background, and sexuality will all be targets for online trolls. In the end you’ll likely lose the election anyway, because the incumbent usually overwhelmingly wins reelection. You’ll then have to try to rebuild your life and career. You in?”
That’s what political parties have to ask when they’re approaching prospective candidates to run for office. And it’s far worse for a snap election, and worse still for an election called in the middle of a global pandemic and economic downturn.
John Horgan has just called a snap mid-pandemic election, and we’re likely to get a slate of candidates that are older, richer, whiter, and more male than in any other recent elections.
When a political party puts out an open call for people to apply as candidates, there is one segment of the population that applies in far greater numbers than any other. And it makes sense why: if you’re retired then you have the available time to do something like run for office. If you’re wealthy then you have the money to put your life on hold to do so, and if you’re white and male then you’re far more likely to have the (maybe misplaced) self-confidence to think that you should be in charge of things.
I don’t want to come across as suggesting that there’s anything inherently wrong with old, retired white guys. I plan on being an old retired white guy myself one day. But it should be obvious that our society in British Columbia is composed of a lot more people than just grey-haired guys with European-sounding last names. And our democracy functions better when it’s composed of people that are representative of all of British Columbia, not just the most privileged among us.
Recruiting a slate of election candidates that is representative of British Columbia as a whole is surprisingly difficult. The best candidates out there are likely people that are already exceptionally busy in their regular lives, doing the type of things that make them the kind of person that you’d like to see run in politics.
A snap election adds an extra layer of stress, because it means that someone has to drop everything and immediately pivot to campaigning. You can’t plan for it and get your affairs in order in advance. Not many people have a job that allows them that type of leeway, or that they can count on to be able to to return to if they lose at their election bid.
During this pandemic unemployment numbers shot up to nearly 15 percent, and many others had their hours slashed. Millions of Canadians went onto the government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit program to try to get by. Those people are now attempting to rebuild their lives and careers, and get themselves back on track. Very few people are currently financially stable enough to go without a paycheque for a month in order to run for office.
All of these factors are compounded if you come from one of the many sectors of our population that are less privileged. Women in Canada still make around 13 percent less than men for doing the same job. The pay gap exists for persons of colour as well: racialized women make 55 cents for every dollar a white man does, and racialized men make 78 cents. Wages are radically different for people of different ages as well. Understandably, someone who’s spent decades longer in their career will make far more than a 20-something who is new to their job.
Someone who has school-aged children is less likely to be able to afford to be a candidate, as is someone who’s caring for an elderly relative, or who has student loans, or who is sending money to support family overseas. Someone who comes from a non-European background, or who isn’t male, or who is part of the LGBT community, is also subjecting themselves to a level of toxic abuse that white men just don’t experience when running for office.
By calling this snap election, John Horgan is dealing a massive blow to equity in our province and democracy. He has added extra barriers to the participation of many of the people that we’d like to see running for office, and stacked the deck for the richest and most privileged among us to clean up and take over.
I really hope that British Columbians don’t reward the BC NDP for this.