I distinctly remember the day this summer that then-leader of the third party Justin Trudeau announced gender parity in cabinet as a campaign promise. I also remember rolling my eyes, and muttering something about merit and tokenization, deciding this would just be a campaign promise I disagreed with. Now that the dust has settled, and Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet have been sworn in and are hard at work, I cannot help but reflect on how wrong I was.
In a piece published by the Tribune on Nov. 3, “Justin Trudeau’s gender equal cabinet quota is not ‘Real Change,’” Alexandra Harvey claimed “women deserve to be in office because of their unique skills and experiences as people, not just as women.” In theory, this makes sense, but in practice we see too many deserving and capable women who are passed over in favour of their male counterparts. Women are more often not in cabinet because they are women than they are in cabinet because of their gender.
A lot has been said about the new cabinet, but one concept has stood out among the cacophony of opinion pieces and blog posts: Merit. For all its use, it is a word that very few have actually tried to unpack. What does it mean to merit a cabinet position? Looking at the Trudeau cabinet, I cannot help but be impressed by every individual's experience and energy. That’s not to say that other individuals would not have also done a good job—such is always the case when a caucus is stacked with intelligent and impressive individuals. That being said, every individual who was sworn in on Nov. 4 brings something different to the table and has a remarkable background.
What most commentators seem to miss in their critiques is that gender parity in cabinet is actually a way of recognizing meritorious individuals who, because of traditional bias and systemic obstacles, might otherwise be overlooked. It recognizes that for a man and a woman to get to the same place in politics, the latter has, on average, likely faced greater obstacles and has had to work harder. It puts women in positions of power, which allows them to prove their worth and their merit. Many were surprised that Judy Wilson-Raybould was named to the position of Minister of Justice, and yet she brings with her a resumé and breadth of experience—not to mention a personal perspective that has been historically misrepresented or unrepresented in her portfolio.
If we really want to discuss merit, there are far better evaluations and criticisms. Cronyism—namely the appointment of personal friends and favorites of the prime minister—is a much better target of our anger. And yet, the flurry of op-eds on the issue has noticeably avoided this consideration.
Gender parity in cabinet also recognizes that considerations of what constitutes being the ‘best candidate’ for an individual position must be weighed against what is the best choice for the cabinet overall. Canadians have generally valued regional representation in cabinet because we understand the need to have different voices at the table that represent the geographical and cultural differences of our country. Out cabinet is ‘better’ for this diversity, and this improvement through breadth of representation is only furthered through a gender quota
Cabinet should represent Canadians, and part of representation is physically being at the table. I would argue that a good cabinet is one that achieves this. In short, it isn’t about ‘deserving’ a position, it is about who is best going to serve Canada—representation is a huge part of that. The makeup of cabinet should not be reflective of an entitlement for those who meet certain criteria as the only qualification (although they must of course be capable individuals)—rather, it must be about building a team that will represent and serve Canadians properly.
If we want women’s voices at the table, we have to put them there, and recognize the aforementioned obstacles they face. The dust has settled, and while those crying merit have largely calmed their protests and moved on, the women appointed are still at the table, making decisions, and showing Canadians that women can (and should) belong in politics, including in important roles.
Greta Hoaken is the president of the Liberal Party of Canada at McGill University.