Such a dire blow has been dealt to the women of New Brunswick with the termination of the NB Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
I was in the Legislature for most of the debate on March 31st on the motion introduced by the Opposition Leader to reverse the decision to axe the agency. Credible support was put forward by several Opposition MLAs. To my disgust, the Premier left the floor along with several party members while the debate was ongoing, leaving Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney and other female members to respond. The presence of these women in the caucus was actually cited (repeatedly) as proof of the Conservative government’s commitment to women. Speakers on the government side mouthed what I can only characterize as platitudes and declarations of dubious accuracy to support the absorption of the Advisory Council (as if) into the Women’s Issues Branch. The argument they spuriously clung to was deficit reduction — again, as if shaving $400,000/year (not even the real figure if salaries are shifted to Women’s Issues) would make any significant dent.
I have seldom heard such flagrant double-talk as I did in this “debate” — and I have heard much too much. None of the well-placed, pointed questions — either in the House or outside the House from an outpouring of protest since the budget was announced — were addressed with good faith or even much focus; straightforward requests for factual information were ignored, and reference to the government’s promise to work closely with the Advisory Council simply sidestepped.
The mobilization of women and our allies in unions and elsewhere has been impressive, a phenomenon that the Minister chose to appropriate as “evidence” that advocacy for women could continue without the Advisory Council, only one example of the kind of rhetoric employed. I wonder how the currency of mobilization and protest is even counted in our current political climate, for it seems all too often to fall on casually deaf ears, leaving one with the distinct impression that ironclad decisions have been made that will not be unmade for anything as “soft” as sound, passionate argumentation for equity and rights. Has a management model of government entirely displaced sensitivity to issues of justice?
I realized as I took my own temperature in leaving the House that I must have gone in with some expectation of an intellectually credible democratic process, of fair and informed debate. One can never know of course whether ignorance is blissfully unintended or a ploy of deliberate impression-management underlaid by plain old bad faith, but the sorriest thing for me as a longtime advocate for women’s rights and pay equity was to hear the women in government refuse to stand up for women. For decades, our cherished Advisory Council has provided expert, arms-length support for interrelated women’s issues — Chairperson Elsie Hambrook’s shopping list of what remains is testament to the complexity of outstanding issues.
We will all feel the impact of this blow, even those who supported closure of one of the finest agencies of government that turned out consistently superior research and public education. It was a terrible day for me, full of shock and shame.
Where to from here?