Toronto Sun

Sunday, June 4, 2000

PM's women stand by their man

By DOUGLAS FISHER -- Parliamentary Bureau
The Toronto Sun

OTTAWA -- Jean Chretien has rewarded more women MPs than any previous prime minister. Nine of the 35 females in his caucus of 156 are ministers, five are parliamentary secretaries, and six head committees or sub-committees of the House. The current scenario suggests it's timely to appraise what he has given and gets in return.

Let's begin with the continuing attacks by the opposition on Jane Stewart, the minister of Human Resources Development. It's hard to recall any parallel in the virulence, substance and length in such criticism, but the minister remains in place. So far as one can see, the PM and her caucus colleagues are staunchly behind her, whatever her problems with a diverse portfolio she has yet to master.

FEMININE COMPONENT

Now consider a very affectionate biography of the late Shaughnessy Cohen (1948-98) by Susan Delacourt and published by Macfarlane Walter & Ross. It strikes me as a demonstration that the feminine component in the Liberal caucus has been vital to both its spirit, and the backing given its boss. Much of this unusual account is focused on a sizable clutch of super-partisan women MPs who were both bonded and sparked by the aggressive Cohen in her five years as member for Windsor-St. Clair.

Delacourt has been a newspaper journalist covering federal politics from Ottawa for over a decade, and it is obvious from The Passionate Politics of Shaughnessy Cohen she has been an observant, boon companion of many Grits. She tracks with warmth and intimacy the flowering of a rarity on the government side of the House: a celebrity backbencher! Cohen merited such a tag before her sudden death on Parliament Hill, earned with a rollicking zest for life, inordinate gall and ambition, and aggressiveness with the press.

Delacourt's tale underlines what was first noticeable on the Hill years ago, symbolized by both the late Judy LaMarsh and by Sheila Copps. Women MPs tend to be both more partisan as parliamentarians and more loyal to the party and its hierarchy than male MPs. Indeed, both the relentless chivvying of Jane Stewart and the rousing backing which she has had from the Liberal benches emphasize how involved and combative our women MPs are, almost as a rule. There are colourful or noisy examples in all four party caucuses.

The opposition has ducked any charges of males bullying dear Jane by letting their women MPs front the critical chorus (Deborah Grey, Diane Ablonczy, Val Meredith and Libby Davies) The sharpest counters to such detractors have been Stewart's female colleagues. It would be a good bet that the attendance records of MPs kept by the Liberal whip would show his 35 female MPs are more assiduous in being in either the House or in the sessions of their respective committees than his 121 male MPs.

The Liberal ratio of male to female in the caucus is just below 1:5 whereas the ratio of female to male ministers is just below 1:4. Over his mandates thus far the PM has taken the resignations of three female ministers (Sheila Finestone, Diane Marleau and Christine Stewart) but he's also taken the resignations of half a dozen male ministers.

FEMALE ASSESSMENT

I know Chretien's own view of his cabinet is of strength and competence, as against a broad consensus in political Ottawa that it has been, and is, a lacklustre group, with the notable exception of Paul Martin in Finance. Have the female ministers created much of this negative assessment?

Certainly, since late last year, Stewart has become the pole star for both parliamentary and media scorn and derision, so much in trouble while pretending she is not that more notice is now being taken of the ministry, to a conclusion there is a dearth of drive in it. Like the government caucus and the higher mandarinate, it is micro-managed by the PMO.

Such tight control by the PM and his aides, with its consequent lack of bold initiatives by ministers, can hardly be blamed on the female component. Not that the nine female ministers contrast much in either brio or public adroitness with their male colleagues. As yet there's not a star amongst them, although the three most senior women - Copps, Anne McLellan and Lucienne Robillard - know their portfolios well.

Copps is neither as strident nor as reckless as she was before her penance over her brag about the GST's demise, and she has noticeably fewer disciples, but more friends in the caucus, than a few years ago.

Robillard, although cautious, always seems superbly briefed.

McLellan was sometimes seen short years ago as a bet for the highest role. She is shrewd defensively but a real bust at the positive. Those chilled by her voice can choke on her legalese.

Of the three much newer women in the cabinet, Claudette Bradshaw (Labour), Maria Minna (International Co-operation) and Elinor Caplan (Citizenship and Immigration), the folksy and warm Bradshaw seems a moderate asset and Minna could become one if she gets some more time in and larger responsibilities. At this point Caplan gives promise to be another of the PM's tigers from Toronto, assured by colleagues David Collenette and Art Eggleton at such truths as 1+1=2.

Neither of the two women ministers without portfolios, Hedy Fry and Ethel Blondin-Andrew, has been either an obvious asset or debit for the PM, at least in the House.

Several times during her long House travail Jane Stewart was absent and her parliamentary secretary, Bonnie Brown (Oakville), subbed. She has been more mature, succinct and pungent, suggesting how detrimental Stewart's head-tossing scorn has been to the Liberal defence of its HRDC mess.

Brown's example, plus similar gifts and graces shown by other female Liberal MPs as parliamentary secretaries and as resolute activists in committees, indicates Chretien could bolster his cabinet with more, and abler, women ministers. Whether he does or not, he has pushed up the ratio of elected women in higher office, and been rewarded by his portion of women MPs with their persistent participation and stout partisanship and loyalty.

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