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Tory leadership hopefuls should rethink how to court women voters

Leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, right, speaks during the Conservative Party French language leadership debate, Tuesday, January 17, 2017 in Quebec City. Looking on are Erin O'Toole, from the left, Kellie Leitch, Andrew Scheer, and Pierre Lemieux.
Leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, right, speaks during the Conservative Party French language leadership debate, Tuesday, January 17, 2017 in Quebec City. Looking on are Erin O'Toole, from the left, Kellie Leitch, Andrew Scheer, and Pierre Lemieux. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

To say the Conservative leadership race has been a disappointment would be a great understatement. With former Harper-era ministers like Jason Kenney, Michelle Rempel and John Baird all choosing to stay out of the race or federal politics altogether, the field was rife for the taking by some plucky underdog looking to take on the Liberals in 2019 as a viable alternative.

Instead what has emerged is a race dominated by mediocrity, xenophobia and incessant whining against “political correctness.”

On March 8 — International Women’s Day — the Liberal government announced $650 million in funding over three years for sexual and reproductive health and rights. It was a good day for the Liberals.

It was also a stark reminder that the Conservatives are currently running a leadership contest that has Maxime Bernier and Kevin O’Leary among the front-runners, neither of whom have had the best few weeks when it comes to appealing to female voters.

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WATCH: Kevin O’Leary dodged question on grabbing woman’s butt on ‘Dragon Den’

Click to play video: 'Kevin O’Leary dodged question on grabbing woman’s butt on ‘Dragon Den’' Kevin O’Leary dodged question on grabbing woman’s butt on ‘Dragon Den’
Kevin O’Leary dodged question on grabbing woman’s butt on ‘Dragon Den’ – Feb 24, 2017

Let’s start with Bernier since his gaffe this week might just be due to incompetence and ignorance alone. On Monday night, Bernier tweeted out a meme associated with rabid anti-feminists from the Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) movement:

Fellow leadership candidates Erin O’Toole and Lisa Raitt took notice and asked him to clarify, which makes sense considering MRA is a group that advocates for things like legal rape.

Bernier eventually tweeted out that the meme was being misinterpreted.

Yet he curiously did not disavow the MRA movement or take down the original tweet.  One can understand a meme mix-up on social media. But if Bernier had accidentally tweeted out an image of Pepe, an Internet meme of a cartoon frog that has been hijacked as a neo-Nazi symbol, one can only assume Bernier would have not only clarified he had tweeted it out in error but also would have disavowed neo-Nazis and deleted the original tweet in question.

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I certainly wish we lived in a time wherein a politician would not have to actively disavow a group as vile as MRA, that it would instead be glaringly obvious that politicians were not trying to appeal to them. However, dog whistling and openly courting some of the worst factions of the Conservative base has dominated this leadership race, which makes Bernier’s meme mix-up worth questioning.

WATCH: How Kellie Leitch plans to compete with Kevin O’Leary in the race for conservative leadership

Click to play video: 'How Kellie Leitch plans to compete with Kevin O’Leary in the race for conservative leadership' How Kellie Leitch plans to compete with Kevin O’Leary in the race for conservative leadership
How Kellie Leitch plans to compete with Kevin O’Leary in the race for conservative leadership – Jan 19, 2017

For Kevin O’Leary’s part, his troubles with potential female voters were called out last week when left-leaning media outlet Press Progress unveiled a 2011 video featuring a towel-clad O’Leary saying that the CBC being run by women was ridiculous. The full quote being:

“The thing about the CBC, I gotta tell you guys, is the whole place is run by women. I’m working for women. I’m a token guy there. Think about it: Heather Hiscox, Amanda Lang, Kirstine Stewart, Julie Bristow – all these are women that I work for. It’s ridiculous.”

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It wasn’t a great news cycle for O’Leary, but given that Kellie Leitch soon announced her screening questions, it wasn’t particularly damaging or devastating for his campaign. One would think O’Leary and his camp would have been grateful for this, and would have seen International Women’s Day as an opportunity to make some sort of innocuous statement on the value of women and move on, or at least avoid saying something inflammatory about women on the one day out of 365 devoted to their causes and advancement.

Apparently, that is asking too much of him as O’Leary took Wednesday as a chance to make the claim that Prime Minister Trudeau had a “mediocre” cabinet because the he valued diversity over competence. To his credit, O’Leary did say that he would have no problem having a cabinet that was 70 per cent women so long as they were competent.

READ MORE: Trudeau went for diversity over competence when picking cabinet: Kevin O’Leary

This inherently implies that the women in Trudeau’s cabinet were chosen for their ovaries over their brains, which would be laughable if it weren’t something that women are so used to hearing, most usually from men like O’Leary, which is to say white and affluent.

When O’Leary implies that diversity and merit are incongruous and mutually exclusive, he’s denying the existence of any systemic barriers, that women and minorities hold few positions of power simply because of their own incompetence.

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READ MORE: ‘Are you ready for someone like me?’ Conservative MP Michelle Rempel talks women and leadership on Twitter

Perhaps we should look at the facts before claiming that we are living in a meritocratic society that unquestionably accepts men and women as equal: Canada ranks 47th in the world in terms of women representation in political office, our country has the seventh largest gender wage gap amongst OECD countries, and women make up less than 10 per cent of Canada’s top executives.

The Liberals gained 87 seats in the last election at the expense of the Conservatives. I know math is hard and all, but I think it’s safe to say that if the Tories want to win some of those seats back, they’re going to need someone who can actually be a feasible challenger to our prime minister by appealing to that niche special interest group known as half of the population.

Supriya Dwivedi is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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