Ottawa’s glass ceiling

Where are the women who could make a credible run for 24 Sussex Drive?


The U.S. television networks are heavily promoting their new fall series, always a time to place your bets on which ones will last more than a few episodes. It’s a tough business — second chances are rare, and if they don’t achieve immediate popularity, the hook can appear very quickly.

Of the promos I’ve seen, one is clearly trying to cash in on the success of the American political drama The West Wing. Who would have thought politics could attract viewers? The West Wing did, and when an idea proves to be a hit, expect the copycats to arrive. The new entry is called Commander in Chief and the premise is simple: the president dies in office and the vice-president takes over. The hook? The No. 2 who is about to be No. 1 is a woman.

The show may be some writer’s fantasy, but what’s playing out in the real Washington these days suggests Hollywood may not be that far off. As the U.S. political cycle starts to gear up for the 2008 race, it seems there are more female contenders considered as legitimate possibilities than ever before. Washingtonian magazine this month tracks eight it feels have the right stuff and, as a result, suggests a first — the possibility that both Democrats and Republicans could have women on their next tickets. They range from the well-known Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleeza Rice to the rarely heard-of Kathleen Sebelius and Blanche Lincoln. (Okay, I hear you asking, “Who?” Sebelius is the Democratic governor of Kansas, a state long held by Republicans, and Lincoln is a young senator from Arkansas, and both already have fellow Democrats talking.) All this leaves the Washingtonian wondering whether “the nation’s ultimate glass ceiling [will] shatter in 2008.”

Which brings us to Canada and the list of female contenders for the top political office here. Quick, how many can you name? Even the recent survey of possible future leaders of the two main parties didn’t include one woman. The most famous in Canadian politics is probably Belinda Stronach, but likely for all the wrong reasons. Switching parties doesn’t usually help — it’s seen as a loyalty issue, and despite all the welcoming smiles, your new mates don’t really trust you. Anne McLellan is the deputy prime minister (remember, of previous deputies, only Jean Chrétien, who had that title for five minutes during the John Turner administration, ever achieved the top position), but few ever mention her in prime ministerial tones. Want a Liberal to watch, though, who could be the future? Carole Taylor, the new B.C. finance minister.

On the Conservative side, the current scene is equally bleak. Diane Ablonczy, a credible MP who has had a distinguished parliamentary record over the past dozen years, has competed for leadership before, but the results were, well, embarrassing. The Tory MP attracting the most attention in the last session was, like Ablonczy, an Albertan: Rona Ambrose — smart, hip, and very quotable. Perhaps too inexperienced for any sudden leadership race, but remember the name.

The bottom line is that if Canada has women positioned to make a run for 24 Sussex soon, they’re well-hidden, embarrassingly so when you witness the push for power to the south. It seems the glass ceiling is very much intact here, and far from shattering. In other words, still a fantasy drama.

Peter Mansbridge is Chief Correspondent of CBC Television News and Anchor of The National.

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