First elected in 1993 to the federal House of Commons as a Reform MP, John Cummins left Ottawa in 2010 to become leader of British Columbia’s provincial Conservative Party. In an election that has seemed the NDP’s to lose, the provincial Conservatives have posed an additional threat, this time from the right, to the struggling BC Liberals. Conservative gender politics are one part of that political positioning.
Early in his leadership, Cummins opposed gay marriage (a non-starter for broadening his base in a province that is relatively progressive in such matters) and women’s reproductive choice and access to abortions. While Cummins has since publicly somewhat retreated from these views (‘in support of “the laws of the land”’ – interview with Vancouver Sun), other party candidates have been forced to resign for similar, and worse, positions and behavior. Boundary-Similkameen candidate Mischa Popoff was compelled to drop the Conservative label after commenting on the “disaster” of women becoming mothers without “a man by their side” (Vancouver Sun Interview). The Missing Women’s Inquiry, one of the ‘hot’ issues in previous months, provoked a typically insensitive observation from Popoff: “No one wants prostitutes to go missing. But guess what? They do, and no inquiry is going to change that.” In Vancouver, the False-Creek candidate, Ian Tootill, now finds himself an independent after several controversial Twitter comments, including in 2011:“We men love sluts”. Another tweet cost Ron Herbert, the Conservative his candidacy in Vancouver-West End. Herbert directed his sexism at Premier Christy Clark – responding to her Twitter that she could “balance the budget and flip a pancake” with “Gag me with a spoon, b*tch” (See National Post story from 14 April 2013).
While the Conservative Party went full speed into damage control, it should come as little surprise that less than 10% of its candidates are women. Indeed, the litany of anti-women rhetoric typifies on-going informal barriers to women’s participation in politics. The result contributes to the under-representation of women in all the major and minor parties.
Of course, not only the Conservatives have had trouble with loose cannons. On the first day of the campaign, the New Democrats had to dismiss their contender for Kelowna Mission, Dayleen Van Ryswyk, who had made racist comments about First Nations and their entitlement to land and government services. Another NDP candidate, Jane Shin who was nevertheless retained, was discovered commenting online about “chinkasaurus” – referring to Metro Vancouver’s large Chinese population.
Campaigns and democracy require freedom of speech and thought to facilitate ideas and dialogue and reach informed public decisions. What it does not require, however, are sexism, homophobia, and racism. New social media have magnified opportunities to reveal and to reject such views. On this count, BC Conservatives have a long way to go before their party represents a truly democratic option for the leadership of British Columbia.
Vancouver Sun Interview with John Cummins – http://www.vancouversun.com/news/bc-election/John+Cummins+Salty/8336483/story.html
Huffington Post coverage of John Cummins – http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/john-cummins/