Challenging the Anointed Prince: Claim Making and Policy Building in the 2013 Canadian Liberal Leadership Race
By Kelsey Wrightson
The Liberal Party faced an unprecedented challenge after the 2 May 2011 election, its worst electoral result since 1867. The oldest party in Canada, led by historian Michael Ignatieff, a new leader who was thought to have ‘royal jelly’, captured only 19% of the popular vote, and 34 seats across Canada. This dismal showing was the first time in Canadian history that the Liberal Party could form neither the government nor the official opposition. Ignatieff was defeated in his Etobicoke riding and shortly resigned, leaving Bob Rae, a Liberal M.P. but previously a contender for the Liberal leadership and a N.D.P. premier of Ontario, to serve as interim leader. For the next two years, the Grits struggled to regroup and reformulate.
On 14 April 2013 the Liberal Party elected a new leader, Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Elliott (1919- 2000), among the most simultaneously revered and reviled of former prime ministers when he held office from 1968 to 1979, and again from 1980 to 1984. For the first time, the Liberal leadership selection process employed nomination rules that allowed non-party members, known as “supporters,” to vote. Although Canadian liberalism’s soi-disant ‘crown prince’, won with 78% of the popular vote, Trudeau faced a significant contingent of female leadership rivals. Of the nine candidates in the original group, four women sought the top job. When Marc Garneau, the former astronaut widely reckoned as Trudeau’s chief competitor, retired from the race and threw his support to the front-runner, the women stood out for the significant policy alternatives they presented.
Trudeau’s own campaign was remarkable for the absence of specific policy recommendations and indeed his website lacked such a section. Instead, he called for “grass roots” policy building. Such a conspicuous avoidance of concrete proposals could have counted against him. It didn’t. When the ballots were counted, Deborah Coyne and Karen McCrimmon received only 1% each while Martha Hall Findlay and Joyce Murray received 6% and 12% respectively.
The female candidates were a well-prepared coterie. From the east coast came Deborah Coyne (b 1955-), a member of a prominent Canadian family, a single mother of two, and a graduate of York University’s Osgood Hall Law School, as well as Oxford University (MPhil in International Relations). She is a Toronto-based author, lawyer, and member of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. She has a lengthy record of contributions to public policy debates, including advising former Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, who opposed the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1987. She ran as a Liberal in Toronto-Danforth in the 2006 federal election, but lost to NDP leader Jack Layton. During the Liberal leadership run, Coyne’s key policy proposals included replacing the Indian Act in favour of a First Nations self-governance agreement, instituting a carbon tax, and reforming immigration to admit more foreign workers. Her 6 April 2013 leadership speech emphasized frugality and called for public policies to prevent the “fracturing” of the nation. Specifically, she proposed federal, provincial and territorial cooperation in the form of a “Council of Canadian Governments.” Women and gender equality, were nowhere singled out in her speech or policy proposals. Despite her credentials, Coyne is perhaps best known to much of the Canadian public for her relationship with P.E. Trudeau that produced his only daughter, the half-sister of Justin Trudeau. As her meager showing suggested, this did not readily translate into votes.
If Coyne brought significant family capital to the convention, Karen McCrimmon (b 1959-) represented another trajectory often also associated with male elites. She is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and the first woman to lead a Canadian air-force squadron, serving in the Gulf War, NATO-led Balkan campaigns, and Afghanistan. After graduating from the University of Windsor, McCrimmon enlisted in the Canadian Forces as a navigator. When she retired from the military after 31 years, she attended Harvard Law School to study negotiation and mediation, completing the program in 2008. She now owns her own business specializing in conflict resolution and collaborative solutions and training. She is married with two children. McCrimmon ran as the Liberal candidate in the 2011 federal election in the riding of Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ontario, but lost to the Conservative incumbent.
McCrimmon’s policy recommendations centered on the economy, targeting rising unemployment. She also proposed increasing benefits to Canadian war veterans. She advocated a revenue-sharing partnership with First Nations and opening up northern Canada for development. Her 6 April leadership bid emphasized her extensive experience in national security and her family history as a “normal Canadian,” presumably a swipe at Trudeau and perhaps Coyne. Her campaign repeatedly cited her experience in the military, daring the Conservatives to attack a woman veteran. Her convention speech was blunt, “I want more women in politics, I want more veterans in politics… I want more Canadians from every spectrum involved in politics.” At no point, however, did she advocate policy or institutional reform to address gender inequality. Her proposals focused instead on funding gender-based institutional analysis, reinstating the long form census, and, somewhat curiously, inviting men to join the Federal Women’s Caucus.
Still another candidate, Martha Hall Findlay (b 1959-), similarly came from vote-rich Ontario. She is a Toronto-based businesswomen who presented herself as the most business-friendly contender. A graduate of the University of Toronto in International Relations and York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, Hall Findlay is an Executive Fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, a notorious stronghold of neo-liberal economics. She is a single mother, raising three children and working as a waitress, carpenter and ski racing coach while putting herself through law school.
In 2004, Hall Findlay ran in the Ontario riding of Newmarket-Aurora and narrowly lost to then-Conservative Belinda Stronach. She made an unsuccessful bid in 2006 when academic Michael Ignatieff won the party leadership. Between 2008 and 2011, she was the M.P. for Willowdale- Toronto, but met defeat in the 2011 general election. As MP, she held the posts of Official Opposition Critic or Associate Critic for International Trade; Finance; Transport, Infrastructure & Communities; and Public Works & Government Services. In the 2012-2013 leadership drive she favoured a multi-party process for Senate appointments and a foreign policy refocused on International peace-building and -keeping. More central, however, was her emphasis on economic prosperity and fiscal prudence. While she championed the much promised Liberal commitment to a national daycare program, she remained reluctant to use the term “women’s issues.” She preferred to frame gender equality as work-place participation. Although she did not mention women’s political participation in her convention speech, Hall Findlay has previously raised concerns in print.
The sole non-Ontario-based female contender was Joyce Murray (b 1954-), a South Africa- born businesswomen from Vancouver, B.C. She was also the most left-wing of the candidates. She is distinguished by a particular interest in the environment, writing a 1992 MBA thesis at Simon Fraser University on climate change policy options. Before entering politics, Murray and her husband founded a reforestation business. She has three children and lives in Vancouver. Murray began her political career in provincial politics, elected as an MLA for New Westminster in 2001 and serving as Environment Minister and Minister of Management Services under Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell. She entered federal politics in a 2008 by-election in Vancouver Quadra. She has been re-elected twice, albeit in close-fought battles, and is currently Liberal critic for Small Business and Tourism, the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Western Economic Diversification.
Murray ran her campaign primarily on issues of sustainability, most particularly advocating carbon-pricing to address climate change. She also stood out as the only candidate to advocate institutional solutions for gender inequality in politics. Had she won, she promised at least 40% representation of each gender on federal boards, commissions, and agencies. She also advocated proportional representation (PR) as opposed to the current electoral system of first past the post. The former has been found to better represent otherwise minority voices, including women. Of the four candidates, she proved the foremost advocate of cooperation, championing an official policy of one-time partnership on the political “left” (NDP, Green and Liberal) to avoid vote splitting and defeat the Conservative government. Her relatively strong showing likely reflected her stress on the environment rather than her obvious feminism.
The meaning of the Liberal leadership choice will not be seen for some time. The Party can, however, hope that the worst days have passed. A Nanos Research Poll released 12 April 2013 found the Liberals supported by 35.4% of Canadian voters in comparison to 31.3% for the Conservatives. This is the first polling data to put Liberals ahead since 2009. This lead has come primarily at the expense of the NDP, a trend that may encourage Liberals to further erode their rival’s constituency with left-of-centre policies. With her advocacy of PR, environmental action, and gender equality, second-place finisher Murray seems well-positioned for influence, all the more so since Trudeau also favours electoral reform. With her support from prominent environmentalists, including David Suzuki, Murray has already been touted as likely candidate for Trudeau’s “shadow” cabinet (Berthaiume). However, the BC’er is unlikely to be the only policy influence. Trudeau’s endorsement of the Keystone XL pipeline marked him as a “business Liberal” (Smith), making third place contender, Martha Hall Findlay, an obvious ally.
While the race produced the expected resounding win for Justin Trudeau, women captured 20% of the popular vote and staked out clear policy positions. Given Trudeau’s policy light campaign, there is plenty of room for influence. What remains to be seen, however, is whether a crown prince is capable of recognizing and partnering with strong women.
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