MONTREAL — First some positive news for those who believe women have for too long taken a back seat to men in the political arena: There are signs that Justin Trudeau’s commitment to gender parity in the federal cabinet is having a snowball effect.
The market for the dubious argument that gender balance can be achieved only at the expense of competence is shrinking, while demand for proactive measures to ensure parity between the men and women who serve in elected office is growing.
The leading female political actors of both sides of the Commons deserve credit for that. When it comes to effective parliamentarians the new House does not feature a gender deficit.
On that score, the contrast between Rona Ambrose’s authoritative performance in her role as interim leader of the Conservative official Opposition and her slim contribution to question period over her decade in Stephen Harper’s cabinet is a timely reminder that it is hard to stand out when one is consigned to the sidelines.
This week, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard used a mid-mandate cabinet shuffle to bring more women to the front ranks of his provincial government.
One could call that a collateral effect of Trudeau’s election victory.
Couillard’s team never suffered much from the comparisons with Harper’s cabinet. It featured few women and was plagued by a chronic dearth of Quebec talent. The bar was set low.
But once Trudeau presented the country with a gender-equal team, Couillard’s cabinet — dominated as it was by men in suits — looked out of step with the times.
And so on Thursday, Couillard brought more women to the table. From less than a third, they now make up 40 per cent of the Quebec cabinet. He also raised their profile by handing one of them a frontline economic portfolio and reaching outside the ranks of the baby boomers to do so.
Between now and the 2018 provincial election it will be Dominique Anglade’s mission — as minister of the economy, science and innovation — to turn a less than stellar Liberal record on the front of investments and jobs into a work in progress worth showing to voters.
A mother of three with a business track record and solid communications skills, Anglade, 41, hails from Quebec’s Haitian community. (Her parents died in the 2010 earthquake that devastated that country.)
Given her profile, any party would consider her recruitment a coup. Indeed, she initially ran as a star candidate for the Coalition Avenir Québec in 2012 and presided over that party for a year after her defeat, switching horses just prior to winning a byelection in a relatively safe Liberal seat last fall.
And yet, her appointment to a senior portfolio still took the Quebec pundit industry by surprise. Few expected Anglade to land a plum cabinet role. Whether that surprise would have been as great if she had been a man is a fair question.
Listening to some of the post-cabinet media analysis and the talk of the risks Couillard was taking, one might have thought it was the first time he had ever handed a neophyte a top economic portfolio.
And yet, when he took power two years ago, the premier chose three male political rookies to head his top economic ministries. At the time of the 2014 Quebec campaign, the recruitment by the Liberals of a trio of business savvy candidates was widely credited with putting the Liberals on track to a majority victory.
And then, injecting new blood in a cabinet almost always involves some equivalent bloodletting. The main casualty in the case of this week’s shuffle was former transport minister Robert Poëti.
A hard-working amicable man, Poëti was — by all indications — mostly the victim of geography. He holds a seat in Montreal, a city heavily represented in the provincial cabinet. There is little doubt though that the quest for more gender balance did not help his cause.
But before concluding that this only proves that merit is a casualty of gender politics, ask yourself the following question: if one has to run out of competent male candidates before filling senior posts with equally or more talented women, is it any wonder that gender parity has been so elusive in Canada?