Women and proportional representation

December 13, 2018
By Shannon Waters

B.C. Today is conducting a deep dive into how a PR system could affect the number of women elected to the B.C. legislature and what that might mean for politics in the province.

“Too many times, we see the same types of people getting elected time and again — white men, like Mr. Wilkinson and I.” 

Premier John Horgan made this unexpected remark during last month’s televised debate opposite Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson. The premier was arguing that switching to a proportional representation (PR) system would bring “more inclusion” to B.C. politics than the province currently sees under first-past-the-post (FPTP) — and that it is white men that would be weeded out.

Throughout the current B.C. referendum campaign, advocates have occasionally pointed to how PR systems in other jurisdictions have correlated with an increase in female parliamentarians.

“Statistically, when you look at countries with the highest percentage of women elected, they are proportional representation countries,” said Sonia Furstenau, House Leader for the B.C. Green Party, which supports making the switch to PR.

Female politicians have been elected in greater numbers worldwide in recent decades, but research suggests switching to a PR system boosts the number of women in office by between one and 10 per cent

Furstenau holds New Zealand up as an example of PR’s ability to make legislatures more representative of voters.

When New Zealand switched from FPTP to PR in 1996, fewer than 30 per cent of its MPs were women. In 2017, 38 per cent of elected MPs were women.

“What eventually happened is the legislature started to look more like [the population of] New Zealand,” she told B.C. Today. “Right now, our legislature does not look like B.C.”

PR poster child Sweden has the highest number of women in national office at 45 per cent — a full 25 per cent higher than Canada where just one-quarter of MPs in the House of Commons are women. 

Defining precisely why PR systems tend to result in more diverse governments than FPTP is an imprecise science — and success varies depending on cultural factors and the characteristics of various PR systems — but the broad strokes are in the name. PR systems attempt to produce legislatures that more proportionally represent the diverse priorities of voters than the FPTP.

Many PR systems involve multi-member districts, where more than one candidate can be elected to represent a riding. This gives parties more room to put underrepresented groups on the ballot, according to University of Victoria political science professor Grace Lore.

“PR tends to lead to increased representation of women because parties can run more than one candidate at a time,” Lore told B.C. Today. “When they aren’t forced to select just one, they can seek to increase diversity and move beyond the ‘most common candidate.’ This also means women and individuals from other underrepresented groups don’t necessarily need to fight an incumbent for a chance just to be on the ballot. Considering that so many incumbents are white men, this is no small factor.”

Representation matters
Compared to the rest of the country, B.C. scores high when it comes to the number of women in provincial office. Currently, 38 per cent of MLAs are women, as are about half of B.C. cabinet ministers, both opposition house leaders — Furstenau and Liberal Party House Leader Mary Polak — and Deputy Premier Carole James.

This level of representation is a recent phenomenon — until the 1980s, women made up less than 11 per cent of the B.C. Legislature. Since then, the province has had two female premiers and three female Speakers.

In 2011, Liberal MLA Shirley Bond became the first woman in B.C. to serve as attorney general. She currently serves as her party’s finance co-critic.

“It certainly is not because there were not competent women who could do that job,” Bond said of her barrier-busting appointment.

Bond counters the idea that it takes a PR system to increase female representation, noting that during her 17 years at the legislature, she has seen a “significant increase” in the number of women serving alongside her — all under FPTP.

Bond finds the assertion that PR systems automatically lead to more women in politics “too simplistic.”

“The issues around why women choose not to run are very complex,” Bond told B.C. Today. “From my perspective, it is not as simple as the electoral model we choose. I think that all of us need to work harder to have more diversity in the legislature.”

In her years of talking to “really incredible women” about the possibility of running for provincial office, Bond said, “Typically the first response you get is, ‘No, not me. Why would I do that?’”

“The comment I get most often is, ‘I could never do your job,’” says Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Carole James.

While they come from opposing parties, both James and Bond see the power of women in elected office.

“You can’t be it if you can’t see it. We have to show young women that there are meaningful roles [for them],” Bond said. “We need to have women in significant positions in governments — I am a strong supporter of that.” 

“We are not a young legislature,” James said “We do not represent the faces of people in communities, and I think that has a lot to do with the system.”

Bond disagrees. Instead of changing the electoral system, she said parties need to be more proactive about attracting and promoting diverse candidates — something one party in B.C. has already done.

The quota question
In 2017, the B.C. NDP became the first party in the province with more women than men on its candidate slate. When an incumbent NDP MLA steps down, the party’s equity policy mandates that the replacement candidate be a woman, a member of a visible minority, a disabled person or a member of the LGBTQ community.

(For example, when NDP MLA Leonard Krog resigned after winning the mayorship of Nanaimo in October, the NDP opted to run NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson to replace him.) 

A glance between the government and opposition benches in B.C.’s Legislative Chamber reveals the NDP’s policy has borne fruit: about one-third of opposition MLAs are women, whereas women account for more than 45 per cent of seats on the government side. The NDP benches are noticeably younger and less white as well.

Quotas can be even more effective in increasing diversity under PR, according to Professor Lore, partly because the system allows parties to run more candidates than under FPTP.

“It’s hard to implement quotas in our first-past-the-post system,” Lore said. “When you are running more than one candidate in every riding ... implementing quotas is much more feasible. You can require parties run a certain number of women ... in a way that is not possible in our decentralized first-past-the-post system.”

Bond remains skeptical of any policy that sets anything more than merit-based requirements for political candidates. “I believe in the best person for the job,” she said.

“I don’t think that just electing more women is enough.”
Women are not a homogenous group, points out Mitzi Dean, B.C.’s first parliamentary secretary for gender equity. 

“Women are diverse as well — we are half the population,” she said told BC Today. “We have a lot of different experiences and a lot of different skill sets. We get into politics with different motivations.”

Maria Dobrinskaya, director of B.C.’s Broadbent Institute and spokesperson for Vote PR B.C., the official proponent campaign for electoral reform, says it’s important than women from all walks of life are represented in politics — not just those in the privileged class (or concerned with propping it up).  

“I don’t think that just electing more women is enough.” said Dobrinskaya.

There is a difference, Dobrinskaya said, between descriptive representation, where elected officials come from under-represented groups, and substantive representation, where issues important to under-represented groups are well-represented. She points to former premier Christy Clark as an example.

While Clark is undeniably a trailblazer and a role model for many women in the political sphere, she was a polarizing figure as premier.

“She did not necessarily represent the values or the policies that are … most important for getting women into office,” Dobrinskaya told B.C. Today. “That substantive piece was missing.”

The problem of partisanship
Proponents of PR — including Premier Horgan — believe that changing the voting system could also make the B.C. Legislature a more hospitable workplace for women — one free of the bloodsport that characterizes much of history’s male-dominated politics.

“Taking away the confrontation and the hyper-partisanship which we are seeing here tonight will encourage more women to participate as well,” Horgan said during last month’s debate.

On the night of the debate, Liberal Party finance critic Tracy Redies took to Twitter to call Horgan’s comment “condescending” and question the premise that less partisanship would lead to more women in politics.

Some women do undeniably well in the current political arena and Bond — no shrinking violet or stranger to confrontation — is one of them. Clark is another. However some women, like Furstenau, have said they find B.C.’s current political climate less appealing.

“What I hear consistently is that the adversarial and sometimes very cutthroat and nasty behaviours in the [B.C. Legislature] building is an impediment to a lot of women considering politics,” Furstenau said. “They just do not want to be part of that kind of world.”

Even a political veteran like Bond, who is a fixture of question period, admits she still gets nervous before she stands up to ask a question. “It is very intense and can be very intimidating,” she said.

Furstenau, who served as a director for the Cowichan Valley Regional District before being elected provincially, contends that provincial politics lacks the spirit of collaboration found at the municipal and regional level. 

“It was actually quite jarring for me to go from a regional district table to the legislature in 2017,” she told BC Today. “You have a different way of being at those tables. It is about creating effective working relationships.”

 Women do seem to be taking to local politics in greater numbers — Vancouver’s city council is now mostly female — and the Green MLA believes the relative lack of partisanship at city and town halls plays a big part in that surge.

While parliamentary systems foster adversarial politics by pitting the government and the opposition against each other, first past the post (FPTP) systems — particularly those dominated by two parties — can foster zero-sum approaches to policy and debate.

Looking at the current legislature, Furstenau sees a house divided. “There’s that team and there’s this team and never the twain shall meet,” she said.

PR and policy making
PR systems force politicians to look beyond safe seats and party lines, according to Broadbent’s Dobrinskaya, which shifts parliamentarians away from partisanship and can foster more collaborative governance.

“Because parties will need to be appealing to as many voters as they can — not just certain voters in certain ridings — and because they will need to have the support of other parties in order to form government, we are going to see a more collaborative process, more appeal to a broader range of the electorate,” she told BC Today.

“When you change the scoring system, you change the way the players play the game.” 

Dobrinskaya argues that not only could PR make politics more collegial, it could also improve how public policy is developed and implemented in B.C.

Under the current system, cooperation between parties is frequently penalized and compromise is “seen as weak, seen as a political point [for your opponent].” 

“That discourages good policy outcomes,” she said. “We are getting policy that is designed based on certain constituencies that respective parties need to satisfy in order to [win crucial votes].”

Suzanne Anton, who succeeded Bond as attorney general and co-founded the No B.C. Proportional Representation campaign, worries that the relative instability of PR systems compared to FPTP could bring policy implementation to a standstill.

She points to Sweden — a “blissful, liberal, lovely democracy” — where governance has been deadlocked since a September election that produced no clear winner.

Anton warns that political deadlock could halt progress on policy in areas such as child care and negatively impact women in British Columbia.

Coalition governance can also make it more difficult for voters to see a clear path from party to policy, according to Anton, making casting a ballot based on a strong policy preference more difficult under PR.

“You get all these coalition groups and … you do not know what policies you are voting for when you vote for a whole schwack of little tiny political parties,” she told BC Today. “If women want to vote for a party that makes child care a marquee part of their platform … when you start having 10 parties in the legislature, you do not know what you are voting for anymore.”

Bowinn Ma — B.C.’s youngest MLA and an outspoken proponent of PR — disagrees. The first-term MLA says FPTP systems only create the illusion of stability, especially when it comes to policy-making.

“You may get stable majority governments, but you get unstable policy making because of policy lurches,” she said, referring to the tendency for governments fresh to power to repeal policies implemented by their predecessors, often on partisan grounds. 

“Under PR, you may appear to have unstable governments because they keep changing, but the policies are very stable because they were all created collaboratively,” Ma said. “It is a lot harder to lurch and undo good policy [when] more than 50 per cent of the legislature, and therefore more than 50 per cent of the electorate, supports [it].”

Furstenau says political lurching has left Canada and B.C. behind on environmental, social and economic policy fronts — all of which affect women. “We are flailing because we end up with these polarized positions ... and then do these policy lurches. It is devastating,” she told BC Today.

“When you look at the top performing economic countries — countries with the strongest social policies … strongest safety nets — they are PR countries,” Furstenau said. “And the policies that come out are far more stable because there is a collaborative and consensus approach to getting to those policies.”

No referendum outcome will extinguish partisanship — or sexism
Ma says the current level of partisanship in B.C. is “damaging to democracy” and erodes public trust in elected representatives, saying she finds it hard to engage with polarized voters. 

“As soon as you announce your political party, a minimum of 50 per cent of your audience hates you,” she said.

PR may ease partisan tensions but even its proponents don’t expect it would eliminate them — or the issues facing women in politics.

“PR is not going to fix everything,” Finance Minister James said in an interview. “[FPTP] doesn’t fix everything but, to have a system that enables more cooperation, that enables the ability for people to work across party lines … takes away some of the vitriol that is out there around politicians.”

Political power, whether under PR or FPTP systems, has traditionally been wielded by male hands, and there are “significant discrepancies” between the way men and women in public office are treated, according to Dobrinskaya — particularly women in powerful positions.

“Women have to work hard to earn credibility in the Legislature,” Bond tweeted in response to Premier Horgan’s assertion that less partisanship would lead to more women seeking office. “Then when they are focused and tough that is considered a negative trait.”

“PR will not take politics out of politics,” Dobrinskaya concurred. “It is still about power and there will continue to be jostling in various ways.”