Gender revolution brewing in political backrooms

When federal votes are counted in 2015, our next prime minister will be a man. But pull back the curtain. For the first time in history, the three major federal campaigns in this country are being run by women and this might be the biggest leap forward in gender politics in recent memory.

When federal votes are counted in 2015, our next prime minister will be a man.

But pull back the curtain.

For the first time in history, the three major federal campaigns in this country are being run by women and this might be the biggest leap forward in gender politics in recent memory.

We have endlessly dissected the number of women running provinces, leading parties, in cabinet, as candidates. But never before have we had a trio of women calling the shots in the race for the country’s biggest political prize.

Conservative Jenni Byrne, New Democrat Anne McGrath and Liberal Katie Telford are three of the most powerful women in the country.

And the leader of the fourth federal party, the Green Party, is led by a woman, Elizabeth May.

It doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to see a different tone in 2015. But when you have three women making the decisions, recruiting the candidates and setting priorities, it should be reasonable to assume that their presence will ultimately bring more women on board as candidates.

Reasonable, but there is scant evidence of that so far in 2015. Approximately two of every three federal candidates nominated are men.

Byrne has been there before. She guided Stephen Harper to his 2011 Conservative majority and officially left his staff to move back to the party to look for a repeat earlier this month.

She is also notorious for her aversion to media attention and typically declined to talk to us.

She feeds on a reputation as a ruthless backroom operator comfortably well-versed in the dark arts of dashing political hopes and identifying the soft underbelly of opponents.

According to Paul Wells, in his book The Longer I’m Prime Minister, Byrne’s zeal for delivering bad news and enforcing tough calls stood her in good stead with Harper shortly after she was installed as a senior adviser to the prime minister’s chief of staff, Ian Brodie.

The 37-year-old Byrne was a Reformer back to her university days in Ottawa and her longtime loyalty to the prime minister is highly valued by Harper.

McGrath and Telford, by contrast, are well-known in Ottawa circles and are the antidotes to Byrne’s dark, Darth Vader persona.

But make no mistake, all three are cool under pressure, single mindedly efficient and able to deliver tough edicts.

“I’ve done it many times,” McGrath says.

“I take no pleasure in it. When you have to tell someone to step aside or they can’t run, anyone can tell you how hard that is. I prefer not to do it, but I am totally prepared to do it if I have to.’’

McGrath was Jack Layton’s chief of staff and was a familiar face to television viewers in the wake of the Opposition leader’s death. Before returning to helm Tom Mulcair’s campaign, she was a regular on TV political panels and is accessible to the parliamentary press gallery.

She turns 57 this week and is the only one of the trio to run for office. She also ran for the leadership of the Alberta NDP, but has a wealth of public service experience.

She was a teacher, but has held senior positions at Oxfam, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“One of the remarkable things about this is that it is so significant,” she says of this power trio. “I mean, how could it have taken so long?’’

Telford, 36, ran Justin Trudeau’s leadership campaign and is a specialist in training candidates and volunteers, data analysis and organization.

She, like the leader and others in Trudeau’s inner circle, has a young child at home. Her roots are at Ontario’s legislature, but she was also deputy chief of staff to one-time Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

Trudeau once told journalist Susan Delacourt that he purposely chose Telford as his campaign chair to push back against those who counselled against her appointment.

“She constantly fights against people who don’t take her seriously, who belittle her, who say they can do a better job and not just men, not just older men, but everyone. And it’s been a great reminder to me of the challenges that we’re still facing in changing politics as a culture.”

All three will retreat further into their backrooms as the campaign approaches, but their work will be on view every day. We’ll likely see a typical political slugfest this year. But history has already been made.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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