Wins and washouts for women in politics

From the NAFTA front lines to Rideau Hall and the campaign trails of Ontario and Quebec, women were very much on the political centre stage in 2018. Here is a look at some hits, but also some striking misses.

Of the four female premiers who not so long ago were at the helm of Canada’s most populous provinces, only Alberta’s Rachel Notley is left.

Short of a reversal in her NDP government’s pre-election fortunes, at this time next year, the first ministers’ club will again be a men-only forum. It is not to diminish the credentials of her main rival, Jason Kenney, to note that Notley’s defeat would be the first ministers’ loss, and not just because their lineup would lose what little gender diversity it still features.

At last Friday’s gathering in Montreal, Notley was by just about any measure the most articulate advocate for her province. If she does lose next spring, one can only hope she will have a second political life, perhaps in a national role, albeit almost certainly not as a federal New Democrat.

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP is in too much trouble these days to indulge in otherwise much needed introspection. But when the party finds the time, it may want to ponder its uneasy relationship with power politicians, including those from its own ranks.

That Notley, the most politically successful female NDP politician to date, has joined Bob Rae — the only New Democrat to have brought the party to power in Ontario — as a nemesis of the federal party speaks volumes about the latter’s hard-wired opposition mentality. So does for that matter, the self-defeating ousting of Thomas Mulcair.

In a federal cabinet that has not always lived up to its advance billing, Chrystia Freeland has emerged as an essential bright star. The Liberal government’s handling of the NAFTA file has allowed it to shed some of its adolescent attributes and Freeland was very much the adult in the spotlight of the operation.

Talking about spotlight, or the lack thereof, it is possible to understand the rationale of dispatching Jane Philpott to do some heavy lifting on the Indigenous front and at the same time to wish Trudeau could clone one of his more effective female ministers in a role that comes with more consistent exposure.

A month ago, few people outside her eastern Ontario riding had heard of MPP Amanda Simard. In an era that will not go down in Canadian history for an excess of demonstrations of political courage, her speech in defence of the Franco-Ontarian community was a class act.

As it happens, it was also her parting speech as a member of Ford’s government. The ruling Ontario Tories will miss her more than she will miss them at re-election time.

On to the flip side of this bright coin:

Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney entered politics with a bang, but ends her first year with a whimper. In light of her nonchalant acquiescence to the use of the notwithstanding clause to allow her boss to get his way with Toronto city council, her lacklustre rationale for the broken promises to the Franco-Ontarian community and her rapid conversion from carbon tax advocate under Patrick Brown to outspoken opponent as a Ford leadership rival, it is fair to ask whether she actually stands for anything for very long.

When Julie Payette was appointed governor-general, most considered the choice of the former astronaut an inspired one. But Payette’s first year in the regal role has been underwhelming.

Absent a parliamentary crisis, the job of governor-general is largely ceremonial.

One can wonder whether she knew what she was signing up for. Now that she does know, Payette will have to find a way to make the best of it in 2019 or else resign the position.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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