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Justin Trudeau's gender-balanced cabinet could teach Ireland a thing or two

The new Canadian Prime Minister’s decision has seen him roundly applauded – but he’s not without his detractors.

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IF YOU WANT to live in a country where political power isn’t overwhelmingly controlled by one type of person, then move to Canada.

Unlike Ireland, Canada now has equal numbers of men and women in cabinet, thanks to a young new Prime Minister, the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau, who’s showing that politics can change – if the people in power want it to.

Trudeau set out to fill his 30-strong cabinet with equal numbers of men and women, and succeeded. It’s a move which only serves to highlight the lack of women – and minorities – in other cabinets worldwide.

The state of play

20/10/2015 Cabinet Meetings Photocall Ireland Photocall Ireland

Here in Ireland, we have five women and 12 men in cabinet. In the Dáil, there is a paltry 16% female representation. That’s the highest it has ever been.

According to the CSO, women accounted for less than a fifth of members of local authorities in 2013. Meanwhile, the average female representation in national parliaments in the EU was 27.5% in that same year.

Trudeau’s cabinet is also remarkable because, as he put it, it represents Canada. Not just white Canadians. Members of the First Nations tribes will see themselves in Jody Wilson-Raybould, the new Minister of Justice; former refugees will see themselves in new Minister of Democractic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, who hails from Afghanistan; fathers will see themselves in Jean-Yves Duclos, the new minister of Families, Children, and Social Development; Canadians of Indian descent or of colour may see themselves in Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

Criteria for Canadian cabinet already means that there must be at least one minister from each of the country’s 10 provinces.

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There are young MPs, older MPs, MPs of different abilities, faiths, backgrounds, colours, ethnicities in Trudeau’s cabinet.

There is a doctor, a former soldier, a lawyer, a Paralympian, and a geoscientist.

Asked to explain why he chose to have a gender-balanced cabinet, Trudeau replied: “Because it’s 2015.”

He spoke, too, of wanting a better future for children across the country.

US Trudeau AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

What better future than to see yourself reflected in those who look after your country, who approve the laws, who advocate on behalf of citizens, who discuss the most important issues that affect people’s everyday lives?

Despite what some might argue, having a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet is not paying lip service to feminists; it’s not somehow damaging to a country; it’s not ‘quotas gone mad’; it does not mean the end of politics as we know it. Let’s not forget that Trudeau chose to impose this gender-balance ‘quota’ himself.

The notion of being threatened by a diverse selection of people making decisions that affect a diverse population only speaks to the fear that people have not just of change, but of losing power.

Traditionally, the balance of power has been with men, not just in Irish politics, but also in politics around the world. There are those who don’t want to see this lopsided balance shift to include others. There are those who fear the change in the status quo.

Gender equality and fair representation of minorities in politics doesn’t mean a country will be perfect – but it means that more people’s voices will be heard at the top.

What about merit?

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In choosing his cabinet, Trudeau – whose own father was Prime Minister too, and who didn’t just wander out of a barn and into his post – did not pluck a few names out of a hat.

He had 50 female and 134 male MPs to choose from, who were spread throughout the country. As Bloomberg points out, in some areas, the Liberals only elected men.

The new PM chose people who were qualified for their roles, people with experience, people who could benefit from experience (because why should every politician come with years of experience? Can they not use their skills and learn as they do their job?).

He chose people he trusted, but he also trusted himself in not having to toe the line and retain some of the old guard. He was willing to leave long-standing members of parliament out of cabinet in order to let fresh blood in.

It remains to be seen how successful the cabinet is at realising the Liberal party’s aims, but that’s not the immediate issue.

Politics is for everybody

22/7/2015. Cabinet Meetings At Lissadell Cabinet meeting at Lissadell Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

The immediate issue is how a move like this is a gamechanger in Canada. It’s saying that politics is for everybody. It’s not just for one gender. It’s not just for people from one ethnic background, or ability, or sexuality.

It means that in discussions in cabinet, the viewpoints of people from these different backgrounds will be represented. It means people’s eyes will be opened to the experiences of others, that laws won’t be made or approved just based on the experience of one type of person.

It means, for example, that an indigenous person in Canada can trust that a member of cabinet knows their history, shares their experience – and that they won’t be forgotten about or dismissed. In a country that has been criticised for not dealing properly with Aboriginal citizens (and where hundreds of indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing over the past 50 years), this is a huge thing.

Look around the streets where you live. You’ll see people of different genders, faiths, identities, appearances, abilities. Ireland is a multi-cultural country now, but it’s a country that has always had men and women living in it, even if a look at our politicians could have convinced us that women were a rarity.

We don’t have a huge amount of diversity in the Dáil, and yet our politicians represent a diverse and changing country.

It is a country where people of the same sex can marry. It is a country where you can have a strong religion or none.

There can be no drawback to having a government that reflects the diversity of the country it represents. Democracy is about everyone’s voice being heard, but if some voices are heard louder than others, that can lead to decisions that are not in the best interests of everyone. It can also lead to citizens feeling ignored and unwanted.

Women in politics

3/12/2013. Women For Election Reviews Women For Election Reviews in 2013 samboal samboal

With no major change in the gender balance of our Dáil, we have resorted to quotas in Ireland. They are not a perfect solution. But they are proof that affirmative action is sometimes needed, when change has not yet happened (despite our strong feminist history in Ireland).

To achieve gender parity in Irish politics, we need more women to enter politics – which is why groups like Women for Election have been set up.

But the saying ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ is a powerful one. If women don’t see themselves reflected in the current political structures, and when they witness sexism in the very Dáil itself, it is no wonder that some women baulk at the idea of entering politics.

And yet, perhaps a cabinet like Trudeau’s shows that all it takes is a person with power – a person with vision; a person willing to throw off the shackles of tradition – to evoke major change.

Trudeau made a promise last June, and he lived up to it. Unfortunately, we know from experience that’s not always something we can count in politics.

We can’t ‘do a Trudeau’ in Ireland just yet. We simply don’t have the diversity at Dáil level, though we are starting to see more diversity at a local government level.

The issue of unconscious bias in politics also needs to be acknowledged and addressed – why not follow the move of multinationals like Google and Airbnb, who are training their staff to understand how unconscious bias can affect their decisions.

So what can we do? We can learn from his lesson – and decide whether we really want to see a Dáil full of very similar people, or one that is as diverse as the people who make up the population of this island.

We can use our voice, use our vote, or use our feet to enter the political fray ourselves. Ireland is changing. Politics has to change, too.

Read: 9 times when Irish politics has been really sexist>

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