National Column: Because it’s 2016

by Chantal Hebert

Women in Parliament played key roles on both sides of the aisle this year

From leading the official Opposition to playing the lead role on files central to the government’s agenda, women finally made their way to centre ice in the federal arena this year, scoring or assisting on big goals for their parties.

As Parliament winds down for the year, here’s a look at some of the main hits and a few glaring misses.

Rona Ambrose is not the first woman to serve as interim leader of the official Opposition. That title belongs to former Reform MP Deborah Grey. But in comparison to her predecessors – male and female – Ambrose is more than a caretaker.

By the time she relinquishes the position of chief critic of the government next spring, this Parliament will be almost at mid-mandate. A year in, she has already established a standard that whoever is elected Conservative leader will have to work hard to maintain.

Given the crowded leadership field, Ambrose has had to redeploy her team a few times. Yet she has still run a tight ship in question period. She has also not been shy to call a spade a spade, even at the risk of displeasing some party supporters.

In that vein she recently described as “idiotic” the “lock her up” chant taken up by some Alberta demonstrators to protest against Premier Rachel Notley’s carbon tax. By and large, the Liberals must be happy that Ambrose has taken a pass on settling permanently into the job.

Health Minister Jane Philpott and her justice colleague, Jody Wilson-Raybould, had never spent a day in the Commons before last fall. They had to hit the ground running to come up with one of the most sensitive pieces of legislation the Liberals inherited from the previous Parliament.

One can disagree with some of the compromises that went into the making of Canada’s first law on medically assisted suicide and still feel that the mature debate that attended its adoption has left open plenty of channels to resume the conversation.

Back in the summer, there was no lack of trade watchers predicting that Canada’s ambitious free trade deal with the European Union was never going to be ratified by all member countries.

If International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland had allowed the chips to fall where they may rather than tenaciously working to secure its ratification, CETA would indeed not have seen the light of day.

The prime minister put a lot on the line to get 11 of the country’s 13 first ministers to sign a pan-Canadian climate pact earlier this month. But it would not have happened without the legwork done by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in the lead-up to last Friday’s summit.

When Justin Trudeau introduced gender parity in the makeup of his cabinet last year, skeptics wondered whether the move was little more than cosmetic. They questioned whether influence would follow titles.

There were suggestions that competence had been sacrificed to gender balance. There are those who seem to think women should be appointed to cabinet only after the last qualified male has been handed a portfolio. In some quarters, Ambrose’s accession to the interim leadership of the Conservative party was similarly rationalized as a good move on optics rather than more simply the most qualified candidate for the job.

The events of the past year have validated neither of those presumptions.

In closing: conventional wisdom would have it that the presence of a larger number of women in the political front rows is liable to improve the tone of the debate. The assumption would be that it is in the political DNA of women to be constructive and consensual.

But one would not necessarily come to that conclusion after having watched Liberal House leader Bardish Chagger engage daily over the past few weeks in the soul-sucking enterprise of parroting the same lines to justify the pay-for-play fundraising activities of the prime minister.

Or after having listened to Maryam Monsef blow smoke in the face of Canadians – including her own parliamentary colleagues – to avoid providing clarity as to her government’s intentions on the electoral reform it promised.

And then there is former minister Kellie Leitch, a Conservative leadership candidate who has, to advance an otherwise lacklustre campaign, embraced the notion that what her party needs and Canada craves is a strong dose of Trump-style dog-whistle politics.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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