Recent elections have resulted in an increase in the number of women, racialized and Indigenous people in political office in Canada. This is good news, but we still have a long way to go. Elected institutions still do not reflect the demographic composition of the populations they claim to represent.
Political parties have many of the tools they need to bridge this gap, but rather than being a gateway to politics, parties are often gatekeepers. It is time for that to change.
Political parties are the main pressure point in any effort to address electoral underrepresentation. The problem is probably not voter bias: Canadians tend to base their voting choices on party and leader preference, and this tendency tends to override all but the strongest biases, against local candidates. There is no shortage of qualified candidates either, but parties frequently underestimate the electoral potential of those who do not fit the mold.
If all parties nominated more diverse candidates in winnable constituencies, elected institutions would be more representative.
As the last election approached in Ontario, commentators pointed to the high number of women and racialized candidates, many of whom are of immigrant and minority background. But when the votes were counted, the gender composition of the legislature remained stuck at just 39% women.
We need to look beyond the aggregated “diversity” numbers of candidates. It’s not just who names the parties, but also where they run. Realizing this is electorally advantageous, some parties have attempted to recruit more diverse candidates, but women continue to be disproportionately nominated in constituencies the party has no hope of winning. It’s not inclusion.
And while there has been some progress in the right direction, it is not enough, and it has not been the case for all parties at all levels of government.
For example, in the run-up to the Ontario election, the provincial Liberals set aside 22 ridings and designated them as women-only nomination races, which ensured that party-nominated candidates in those ridings would be women. .
If all parties committed to appointing more women to winnable ridings, the demographic composition of our elected institutions would change.
International evidence confirms the key role parties can play.
In 2005, the UK Labor Party introduced legislation that allows parties to use shortlists of women to achieve gender equality in parliament. In the 2019 elections, 51% of elected MPs from the party were women. There is no evidence that voters punished Labor for using an affirmative action measure, and the women selected are just as qualified as the other candidates, often even more so.
There is a straight line between fairer appointment practices and increased gender representation. Political parties that are serious about democratic equality should take note.
But parties need to think about diversity beyond gender.
In Canada, the primary beneficiaries of most diversification efforts are white women. At the federal level, my own research shows that racialized candidates are running for party nominations in numbers greater than their share of the population, but parties still show a preference for white candidates, even in some of the most diverse ridings. from the country. And even when naming more diverse lists, parties still funnel more money to prototypical white male candidates.
Without financial and organizational support, candidates are doomed to failure.
Politics is increasingly seen as inhospitable. Electoral engagement is at an all-time low. If parties are waiting to see which candidates knock on their door and want to run, chances are it’s one of the usual suspects. Now is the time to think about recruiting and organizing candidates: not just at election time or the few hectic months before it.
Enough twist. The parties must recognize their role and commit to act. To open the doors, parties must proactively identify, recruit and support a more representative slate of candidates with money and organizational capacity in constituencies where they can actually win.
Erin Tolley is Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race and Inclusive Politics and Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University.