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NS Parties Fielding Equal Numbers of Women in Provincial Election

Oct 08, 2013

 

The current Nova Scotia election campaign marks a watershed event of sorts for women candidates.  For the first time in several decades the NDP has to share top billing in the recruitment of women.  This development goes against longstanding trends that extend far beyond Nova Scotia.

 

Generally speaking, in democratic regimes throughout the world, left-wing parties have nominated and elected more women candidates than the other parties, beginning in Europe in the 1950s. Eventually the centre / right parties followed suit. Political scientists described this pattern using the colourful term “contagion from the left.”  It caricatures the centre / right parties as copying leftist policies and practises – grudgingly – in order to defend their vote share.
 
This same pattern has held in Nova Scotia, where the NDP’s streak of nominating more women candidates than the other parties traces back at least to 1981. Over time the other parties followed suit, and the number of women elected to the House of Assembly has risen. In comparison with other provinces, we have moved from near the bottom of the pack ten years ago to the middle, with 24% women at dissolution of the last session.
 
Much of the credit goes to the New Democrats for leading the way.  In 1988, under the leadership of Alexa McDonough, they nominated 23 women candidates (or 44% of the slate) – a record that stands to this day. When the NDP faced the real prospect of forming the government in the 2009 election, they might understandably have shifted women’s candidacy to the back burner.  They did not. 
 
In 2009 they nominated 17 women, or 33% of their candidate slate.  In that context, the current tally of just twelve women candidates, or 24% of the NDP slate, seems a bit underwhelming. If the NDP slips, does that mean that the province falls too?  No, it doesn’t, thanks to “contagion from the left.”
 
The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have caught the bug, as both parties have nominated “personal-best” numbers of women candidates for the current campaign.  In fact the Liberals have caught up to the NDP by nominating twelve women candidates. The Progressive Conservatives are only one behind, with eleven.
 
As a result, the number of women elected on October 8 is not expected to depend much on which party wins the most seats.  On a more discouraging note, there are still too few women running as candidates overall. Prospects for progress depend on parties to nominate women candidates in proportions above – not equal to – the level sitting in the House. Now that the contagion from the left for nominating women has sneezed itself out for the time being, the path for the future is open. 
 
If history were to repeat itself, the NDP might catch a renewed fever and then pass the bug along to the other parties.  A more disappointing possibility would be for all three parties to rest on their laurels, having achieved a modicum of respectability.
There is also a third possibility.  
 
Perhaps the goal of moving toward gender parity in politics is beginning to go mainstream.  If so, recruiting more women candidates would no longer be a contagious disease – an unwanted practise that must be mimicked – but rather a core element of every party’s identity.  Now, that would be progress.
 
Louise Carbert is Associate Professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University. She is the author (with Naomi Black) of “Electoral breakthrough: Women in Nova Scotia politics” and “Doing the work of representation, Nova Scotia style,” both published in 2013. She served on the 2012 Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Nova Scotia.

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Thanks also to the Government of Canada (Status of Women & Canadian Heritage) for their financial support.