Andrew Coyne’s piece today takes issue with Trudeau’s policy of gender equality in Cabinet. Coyne’s central argument is that merit runs counter to diversity. You can either have merit, or you can have diversity. They’re mutually exclusive, so pick one.

First, let’s back up. There is indeed much evidence that the PM-Cabinet relationship has strayed far from ‘first among equals’, and is hurtling towards the presidential model of executive functioning. This steady move is not however, because we’re stuffing Cabinet full of unqualified but diverse MPs. It is the result of a complex mix of modern political management, centralisation, 24 hour media cycles and more. It’s a trend that exists in other Parliamentary systems too, regardless of the regional, gender or racial composition of Cabinet.

We’d generally agree that the subjugation of not just Parliament, but also Cabinet, to the will of the Prime Minister’s Office is a Bad Thing for democracy. But I doubt the roots of this problem are found in the wildly diverse executives we see across the world.

Now, let’s look at the system Coyne describes as ideal. Essentially, he argues qualities like leadership, judgement and communication skills are neutral values, uninfluenced by external experiences. « If merit is defined in traditional terms, » he says, meaning, I assume, those solid traditional values of nepotism, vote-buying and asymmetric federalism. Presumably cabinets of yore were not filled with white men, horribly tokenised for their Albertan roots, or appointed solely because their uncle was well-known.

Coyne posits that the current norm – a board, a cabinet, a management team of white men – is merit. They are the neutral, the default. Anyone else is an aberration or a niche interest, picked not for their skills but as a token representative to appease niche demographics.

From a public policy perspective, let’s pick that apart:

One – women are not a niche demographic. We are not an aberration. We are 50+% of the population. It is not pandering or political correctness to include us.

Two – black women are no more niche, specialised or a token than are white men. Why are white men the opposite to this bundled notion of diversity? Diverse from what? The norm of white men?

Three – merit’ is not itself a neutral concept. We can, for example, define merit as someone with expertise and lived experience in aboriginal affairs. Merit could be policy expertise in policing in black communities, or an understanding of healthcare provision for newcomers. If one’s background and identity bears no relevance to ability to contribute to public life, then why not let white men make all the decisions for us?

Four – it’s a golden rule that when arguing against diversity, you must raise the fabled black, disabled lesbian as a ‘slippery slope’. Goodness, what’s next? This political correctness is madness! Coyne does so eloquently, with a nicely-styled reducto ad absurdum. We simply can’t make any change to the norm, because next thing you know, we’ll have to find 1.7% of Asian gay men to fill the Statistics Canada-allotted percentage. And we don’t want to go there, so sorry everyone who isn’t a white guy, clearly we can’t change anything. It’s white guys all the way down, or it’s rigid, impossible, ridiculous quotas. That’s your false dichotomy.

Five – there are plenty of talented, skilled, smart people who are not white men. Loads of us. Diversity and merit can exist in the same body! It’s your job to nurture us, to seek us out, and to recognise the value we bring. Yes, that means increasing the number of women in Parliament, to increase the pool of possible Cabinet candidates. That is not an argument against gender equality in cabinet.

When you use merit to oppose efforts to boost the number of women in positions of power, you’re saying what currently exists is a meritocracy.

Coyne imagines a frightening situation where a white man is passed over for a position, in favour of a lesser qualified black women. Which is appalling, and has obviously never happened in reverse. Every single white guy in history was appointed solely because he was the smartest, best candidate. Otherwise, it would mean black women have been subject to systemic, unacceptable intersection of racism and sexism for centuries.

It would mean there were no qualified women who were rejected because they might get pregnant, were too strident or angry, didn’t « look the part, » didn’t play golf, weren’t assertive enough in meetings, had their ideas stolen by the loud guy in the room, or didn’t get on that executive training course cause a guy went instead.

If a meritocracy currently exists, and appointing women would dilute talent, then gosh, white men must be awfully smart and skilled. Perhaps women just prefer caring professions. It’s probably in our DNA. Maybe we’re not designed for the cut-and-thrust of politics. We don’t have those leadership skills, the deft management touch, the experience and the judgement clearly. Otherwise, we’d already be in positions of power. Cause we live in a meritocracy, right?

What Coyne is saying is systemic sexism isn’t a thing. That it doesn’t exist. That girls are not dissuaded from politics from a young age, being « nice and pleasing » is not detrimental to girls’ ability to assert themselves, riding associations don’t discriminate in their choice of candidate, the lack of affordable childcare doesn’t prevent women from entering politics, the often hostile environment of the House of Commons is a fiction, women aren’t passed over for promotion, white women don’t earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, female politicians aren’t targeted by misogynistic abuse and that there are no barriers to women entering politics at all.

Photo by Sharon Drummond / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / modified from original

Lauren Dobson-Hughes
Lauren Dobson-Hughes is a consultant specializing in gender, health and rights. She was previously executive director of an international development NGO, and past president of Planned Parenthood. Lauren worked for the late NDP Leader Jack Layton.

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