An NDP win would produce the first social democratic federal government in Canada, and perhaps a major shake-up in terms of women and gender equality policy.

Federal electoral politics is the most competitive it’s been in ages. The three-way race makes for a truly uncertain outcome for voters, at least at this early stage of what will be the second longest campaign in Canadian federal electoral history.

Besides making for an interesting election, this situation invites consideration of the possible postelection policy landscape. The incumbent party has strong incentives to innovate, which is unusual enough. But the policy platforms of the other two parties matter more than they would ordinarily. In Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau we may have our next prime minister come October 19.

In his essay, Eugene Lang offers compelling insights, and I’ll pick up on some of them below. I approach the question of our postelection policy landscape using a gender lens to ask how thinking about women and gender influence our speculation about the policy agendas of the three contenders. As a scholar of gender and politics, this is a natural question for me, and it is all the more important given that all the major parties, across the political spectrum, are within reach of power. At least for the moment.

Starting with the Conservatives on the right wing of the political spectrum, the party has not been a disaster for women or gender-based issues. Canada is a liberal democracy with a written bill of rights, and we are consistently rated highly on the gender indices produced by international organizations (for example, 8th according to the United Nations Development Program Gender Inequality Index for 2014).

Women are doing relatively well in Canada as a group (although certain categories of women are faring horribly). This is not because of the Conservatives or in spite of them but principally the result of long-term legal, political and social forces.

On some issues, Stephen Harper and his government have adopted stances intended explicitly to promote gender equality, such as the recent interjections in the headscarf debate. On March 10, 2015, Harper stood in the House of Commons and made a statement against face-covering veils, worn principally by Muslim women, calling the practice “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” Later in 2015 the government adopted a ban on face-covering veils in citizenship ceremonies, citing similar reasoning.

Without wading into the normative aspects of these debates, the point here is that the Conservatives’ position explicitly focuses on gender equality, and it is also consistent with the positions taken by some prominent feminist activists and organizations.

All this said, if we think about the pressing gender-related problems facing the country — the lack of a national child care plan, violence against women, gender income gaps and women’s political under-representation, for example — the Conservatives offer the fewest possibilities for real change. The major challenges are that most of the time the party avoids talking about or presenting policies that relate explicitly to gender and that it relies more than the other parties on tax policy and the private sector to address issues that are on the top of the feminist agenda, such as the creation of child care spaces. In my view the party isn’t antiwoman or antifeminist. It is ambivalent.

The policy implications of a Justin Trudeau Liberal government are challenging to predict, in part because of the party’s ideological versatility. As Lang points out, it veers left and right as circumstances demand. This isn’t simply because the party lacks an ideological anchor. This behaviour is common of parties that occupy the middle of the political spectrum in Western democracies generally, particularly in majoritarian electoral systems like ours. In a three-party system, parties in the middle are closest to the median voter, so they can move around ideologically, right or left, without fear of veering too far from the average voter. The same isn’t true of right and left parties, which can only move toward the centre if they want to avoid the risk of lowering their vote share in the next election.

Lang points out that the Chrétien Liberals oversaw truly deep spending cuts to federal departments and to provincial transfers. Bashevkin’s comparative analysis of so-called Third Way leaders in Canada, the United States and Britain shows that “despite seemingly progressive campaign rhetoric, the social policies implemented under each of these leaders [Chrétien, Clinton, and Blair] were in many respects more punitive…than those of their neo-conservative predecessors in the 1980s.” The Liberals have a reputation for campaigning left and governing right, a pattern that isn’t great for gender equality policy.

Are the Trudeau Liberals different? At times, Trudeau seems attentive to gender issues as a lens on policy. His decision to require that new candidates for the party be exclusively pro-choice on the abortion issue was a bold move, and one that probably speaks directly to his personal commitment to women’s autonomy. In terms of political representation, the Liberal platform, called “Real Change,” also promises that Trudeau would appoint cabinets with an equal number of men and women.

On the pro-choice requirement for candidates, two points are worth noting, however. First, Trudeau’s decision might be too heavy-handed. The party risks passing over good candidates who cannot adopt an unequivocal pro-choice stance. Second, and more worrying, the real impediment to reproductive freedom in Canada isn’t the legality of abortion but rather the accessibility of abortion services. In some regions, these services are not available, which often requires women to travel long distances or incur prohibitive costs. On these issues, and others related to women and gender equality, we haven’t heard Trudeau speak.

Both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin promised national child care programs (although neither delivered), but Trudeau has not followed suit, perhaps because Mulcair was first out of the block with his proposal for a Quebec-style, $15 per day public daycare system. Trudeau’s plan looks more like a revision of the current child care scheme, which gives cash to parents to use on the private market instead of providing public daycare services. In Trudeau’s proposed Canada child benefit (CCB), payments would be pegged to household income, maxing out at $533 per month for the lowest income-earners. In contrast, the Conservatives’ Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) is universal. Under Trudeau’s plan, it appears that most parents would receive more money than they do under Harper’s plan, but the lower-income earners would receive disproportionately more. The other difference between the two plans is that Harper’s UCCB is taxed, while Trudeau’s CCB is not.

Finally, we have Mulcair’s NDP. If it won the election, this would be the first social democratic federal government in Canada and perhaps a major shake-up in terms of women and gender equality policy.

Most immediately, we would see a change in political representation. The NDP caucus is currently composed of nearly 50 percent women, and of the candidates the NDP has nominated so far (231 of 338), 42 percent are women. The NDP regularly fields and elects the highest proportion of women compared with the other major parties.

While symbolically important, women’s proportion of caucus seats is also consequential for policy. Research demonstrates that under certain conditions, women legislators are more likely to mention women or gender in policy debates and are more likely to speak up on behalf of legislative changes that would benefit women (see here and here). Put simply, the presence of women in legislatures is positively related to attention to women in the policy process.

From a gender perspective, the centerpiece of the NDP platform is the Quebec-style $15 per day public daycare system. Lang seems skeptical about this pledge, and I’m with him to some extent. As he notes, Quebec has undertaken some major revisions to its policy recently. It’s too strong to say that the province has abandoned the system. Rather, Quebec has altered the universal fee structure, moving to a system in which fees are pegged to household income (though it is still heavily subsidized compared with market rates). Under the new system the maximum fee is $20 per day per child when household income exceeds $150,000. Even at $20 per day, which would be about $400 per month ($20 times 20 full-time child care days per month, on average), Quebec’s monthly daycare costs are still the lowest nationwide, where the average ranges from a high of $1,152 in Ontario to a low of $631 in Manitoba.

How will this ambitious plan be funded? As Lang points out, “by an as yet unspecified increase in corporate taxes.” Referring to Bob Rae’s memoir, Lang reminds us that for the NDP in office, principle makes space for pragmatism. Rae learned this in the early 1990s, and his decisions to scrap public auto insurance and adopt the Social Contract turned the unions and labour generally against him. Given the vagueness of Mulcair’s plan, and the knowledge that NDP platforms sometimes shift in the face of economic realities, a healthy dose of skepticism on the child care promise is warranted.

On the other hand, Mulcair’s plan at least incorporates women and gender into the discussion. He’s the only leader explicitly linking child care to women’s autonomy, noting how many women in Quebec, for example, have been able to enter the workforce as a result of the provincial scheme. For the other parties, the discussion focuses solely on families, children, and early childhood development, and doesn’t incorporate women and gender equality. On that front, and given that campaigns provide signals, not blueprints, the NDP likely offers the best chance for gender equality policy progress, as well as a major post-election shakeup in Ottawa.

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant is associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University.