In 1978, a majority Liberal government under Pierre Trudeau passed Canada’s first pay equity legislation.
For the next 20 years, a succession of Liberal and Conservative governments resisted that law’s natural outcome, a multi-million dollar settlement with underpaid women in the public service.
It was not, of course, that the Liberals had suffered an ideological reversal on the subject of a woman’s right to equal pay for work of equal value. They simply had to slay the deficit dragon, at all costs. By 1999, when the Chretien government lost its final court challenge and was forced to cough up, all costs including back pay and interest came to more than $3 billion.
While the Liberals’ official position on women’s rights hadn’t changed since Trudeau’s time, their wishy-washy centre-left idealism had faded to grey against the strong background of “fiscal conservatism” that was the real theme of the Chretien-Martin years. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in women’s equality, they just couldn’t afford it. Once the expenditure became inevitable, Liberals went back to supporting pay equity.
Now another decade has passed, and equal pay is once again under attack. Women in Canada still earn on average 71 per cent of men’s wages, a trifling increase since the ‘70s. A 2004 federal task force recommended the implementation of “proactive” pay equity legislation, making it incumbent on employers to achieve equal pay, rather than on women to pursue equality through human rights tribunals and the courts.
Four years of inaction followed that report, until last November when Jim Flaherty’s financial statement contained a plan to amend the pay equity law simply by removing a woman’s right to seek redress through the courts. Liberals joined other opposition parties in crying foul.
When the Dion Liberals finally stopped propping up the Harper government, joining a formal coalition with the New Democrats, Flaherty withdrew his mini-budget, including the attack on women’s rights. Temporarily satisfied, the Liberals went home for a change of socks and leader.
While anxious to distance himself from his coalition allies, the new Liberal leader was quite proud of the way his party had helped to turn back the evil Conservative budget statement. In January Michael Ignatieff told the Canadian Club of Toronto “(Harper) said that the right way to address Canada’s difficulties was to take away civil servants’ right to strike, attack pay equity for women and stop public funding for political parties. That was not a program. It was a provocation. And we said: ‘No you don’t. Back down. Think again.’”
The Conservatives did think again, and on second thought put the pay equity changes back in the 2009 budget. Liberals still oppose this gutting of women’s rights, but regret that they will be unable to vote against it this time.
“Canadians don’t want another election,” says Ignatieff, “and they’re tired of political games.”
What are these political games of which we Canadians are so weary? Liberal poll numbers took a hit when the party joined last year’s left-wing coalition. With a new leader and a renewed commitment to prop up the Harperites in a de-facto right-wing coalition, Liberal popularity is on the upswing. All-in-all, political gamesmanship seems to be serving Ignatieff quite well.
Though he’s often accused of hiding a secret agenda, Harper’s position on pay equity has always been clear. As leader of the National Citizens Coalition, he described equal pay for work of equal value as “a rip-off,” and urged the government to “scrap its ridiculous pay equity law.”
The Liberals, being Liberals, are much harder to follow. There can be no doubt they stand for women’s rights – just take a look at the Liberal Women’s Caucus Pink Book, for instance. Unfortunately, they stand on rounded heels, and the Conservative bully-boys show no hesitation in pushing them over.
Ignatieff has promised that Liberal members of the new right-wing coalition will “be watching like hawks” to ensure that their Conservative allies will “satisfy the expectations of Canadians.”
They may be watching, but the metaphor is a poor fit. Hawks have claws.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.