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Monday 4 November 2013


Those concerned over how many City Council seats are won, by women, ought to sound alarms well before the ballots are counted.  By then, how many (or how few) women ran and what percentage are elected, is merely a point of history.

Following completion of returns, Sheilagh O'Leary the Mayoral contestant in St. John’s, was quoted, saying, the failure of St. John’s to elect a single woman was “disgraceful”.  NDP MHA Gerry Rogers called it “shameful”. 

Just possibly these responses, to the exclusively male Council, were ill-considered. Words like “unfortunate”, “disconcerting”, “upsetting” or even “disturbing” might have been more measured and more appropriate, too.  But, I would not over emphasize anything said within minutes of a mentally and physically draining, foot slogging, and unsuccessful election result.
Electoral politics is a tough business.  This scribe has been awaiting the return of his deposit from the Province’s Chief Electoral Officer, since 1975.  It is beginning to dawn on me that I may not have garnered the requisite number of votes to inspire that Official to consider such an act of generosity.    

Would I care what inappropriate words may have been uttered in a moment of frustration?  Not a whit. 

The matter of gender politics is still a sensitive subject; though often misunderstood, it is still damned important.

Likely, Sheilagh O’Leary was in grade school when women like, Ann Bell, Lynn Verge, Luanne Leamon, Donna Butt and others lobbied newly minted Premier Brian Peckford to have the Provincial Government fund the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.  They found, in Peckford, a sympathetic ear.  Evidence that all our institutions, both elected and non-elected were under-represented by women, was patently obvious. 

Governments, political parties and lobby groups all had a stake in making gender equity an ideal that moved beyond good intentions.   

Few will argue that the playing field has been substantially levelled over the past thirty years, even if we have farther to go.  The Peckford Administration was not all about offshore management; solid progressive social policies, though not all related specifically to women, came out of that time and out of the Moore’s Administration, too.

Open-minded, as well as policy-minded Premiers, prodded by serious, focussed and articulate activist spokeswomen, have made major and irreversible strides in bureaucratic circles and elective politics, too. 

Unlike appointments to the public service, boards and committees elective politics is only partly within the ambit of political leaders to influence.

You may well ask, why?

Municipal elections are completely open to both genders.  Provincial and federal politics differ only insofar as the process is Party based and each screens potential candidates, requiring them to win a nomination contest first. 

Not surprisingly, activists frustrated with the paucity of female members in the House of Assembly, often complained that the ‘backroom boys’ conspire to keep politics a male domain.  I never did agree with that view, not having witnessed interference, with female participation, in elections.      

I recall Premier Moores’ spending a princely sum of money polling and re-polling the Province, district by district, to determine who might have the best shot at winning.  Moores could not afford to alienate anyone.  Following the 1972 defeat of Smallwood, traditional Liberal supporters soon migrated back to their political roots. Male or female, if they were found to be potential winners, Moores did his utmost to cajole them into running.  He may not have advanced gender equity a great deal but there was no thwarting of female electoral aspirations.

Peckford, on the other hand, took a wide-ranging approach to the gender equity issue and produced greater results.

For women, entering provincial politics, the Nomination process is a huge hurdle.  It is an important screening and inclusive process that is influenced by personal popularity, organizational skills and money.   People who have a history of engagement in municipal politics and community organizations always have a leg up on competitors, for obvious reasons. 

Municipal female leadership constitutes an important segment of the ‘farm team’ for provincial and federal politics.  The Premier is one such example.

Unlike, provincial and federal politics, though, at the municipal level it is every person for himself/herself.  No Party system is available to provide coaching, professional image making or money. 

St. John’s has a Council similar in size to communities with a population of a few hundred.  Hence, competition for seats is fierce.  Name recognition in advance of the Vote helps but, like all elections, even organization and money cannot guarantee success.

Winning demands a lot of things including luck and timing.  The best of either is useless if few women actually run.  St. John’s municipal elections have never attracted a lot of female interest.  The recent historical record is evidence enough: 

Municipal Election 1997 – 35 men ran against 8 women; 3 women elected

Municipal Election 2001 – 36 men ran against 5 women; 2 women elected

Municipal Election 2005 – 30 men ran against 5 women; 1 woman elected

Municipal Election 2009 – 27 men ran against 4 women; 3 women elected

Municipal Election 2013 – 22 men ran against 4 women; 0 women elected

 A statistician calculating the probably of the current female shut-out, might have made such a prediction some years ago, if not in 2013, then sometime soon.

Among voters, male and female, politics is gender neutral. Voter bias is all about which candidate is perceived to be the best fit from what is frequently a limited cast.

Want more women on City Council? 

The activists’ job is far from over.  They are still needed in the trenches. 

A goal needs to be set for 2017.  We need just as many women to run as the number of men, this year.  The result may not be an all-female Council, as did Branch, but never discount that possibility.

And there would be nothing shameful about it.