Madam Speaker, I am going to focus my remarks today on responding to the budget's main rhetorical thrust: issues around gender equality and the participation of women in the workforce.
For context, it is important to begin by defining what the objectives are when we talk about gender equality. I do not think that many, if any, of the leading advocates of women's empowerment and gender equality undertook their efforts principally in pursuit of a higher gross domestic product. GDP growth and government revenue growth may be nice ancillary benefits, but they ought not to be the principal objective. This is for three main reasons.
First, GDP is not a measure of well-being: it is a measure of the economic value of the final goods and services produced in a society. To point this is out is not to undercut the importance of measuring GDP or seeking GDP growth, since higher GDP means greater capacity at the individual and collective level to invest in things that do contribute to well-being, but GDP is not a direct measure of well-being, and the pursuit of a higher GDP may run at odds with the advancement of well-being in certain cases. The advancement of gender equality seems to me to be about well-being, not GDP—that is, it is about making the lives of women better, not about making society richer.
Parenthetically, this is why it is important for societies to consider alternative measures of well-being instead of using GDP growth as a proxy for well-being. Many proposed alternative measures are problematic for their own reasons, because they weigh different aspects of life in ways that reflect the relative priorities of those designing the indices instead of the relative priorities of those whose well-being is aimed at. As such, I personally favour the greater use of a simplified metric that asks individuals to self-assess their well-being on a scale. Such a metric has limitations, but it provides a much better basis for assessing well-being than either arbitrarily constructed well-being indices or metrics like GDP.
Also parenthetically, it is striking how women's self-reported well-being in the industrialized world has actually declined in recent decades. According to an article published by the econometrics laboratory at Berkeley:
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women's declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men.
Therefore, clearly there is still much work to do.
I will go back to the main point: GDP growth should not be considered the objective of gender equality not just because GDP is not a measure of well-being but also because it is paternalistic to assign an objective to gender equality other than the empowerment of women to pursue their own chosen projects and objectives. It is not for us as parliamentarians to decide whether women ought to use greater empowerment to pursue increased paid work, to pursue more leisure time, or to involve themselves in other worthwhile projects that do not involve the economic production of goods and services, such as community involvement, personal enrichment, or family-related activities. Surely a commitment to women's empowerment should leave us to be enthusiastic about whatever choices a person makes, provided those choices represent authentic self-expression and due consideration for the common good.
Third and most importantly, we ought to regard the affirmation of equal dignity and value of all people as an end in itself, not merely as a means to achieve some other end. To justify the advancement of equality purely or primarily in economic terms is to imply that economic growth is the thing of primary importance. I would prefer that we justify economic growth in terms of its implications for human dignity, rather than justifying the affirmation of equal and universal human human dignity on the basis of its impact on economic growth.
How we frame the basis of gender equality has practical policy implications in terms of the kinds of policy that we will pursue to advance it. If we believe that gender equality is an end, not merely a means, and that it is best understood in terms of empowerment and well-being, then we will seek policies that empower women and we will be generally agnostic as to how they use their increased agency. If empowered women make different choices, on average, than men in terms of their time and resources, that is not a problem for the state to solve; it is, rather, the result of free and empowered people making free decisions in a free society. Seeking equality is not the same as seeking sameness.
If, however, we believe that the objective of gender equality is GDP growth, then we will pursue policies that push certain kinds of choices over others—in particular, choices that involve more paid work.
It is clear that budget 2018 delivers a GDP-centric vision of equality as opposed to a well-being-, choice-, or simply equality-centric vision. The introduction to the budget tells us that “In January 2018, only 61 per cent of women were participating in the economy, compared to 70 per cent of men.” Again, we might wonder if the principal thing of value in life is “participating in the economy”. Why is this the metric of equality? Many women and men who are not in the paid workforce are choosing to undertake activities that they consider, and which could objectively be, more important.
Further, the assignment of certain tasks to be part of the economy or not part of the economy can be quite arbitrary. If I am the caregiver for my children and my neighbour mows his own lawn, neither of those activities is considered part of the economy, but if I hire him to watch my children and he hires me to mow his lawn, then all of a sudden those activities are both part of the economy and contribute to GDP. That is in spite of the fact that nothing actually separates the former situation from the latter, other than that the government is better off in the latter situation since it can now collect taxes on this new “economic activity”.
The budget bemoans “uneven sharing of caregiver responsibilities”. Every marriage is characterized by uneven sharing of certain responsibilities based on the desires, priorities, and aptitudes of each partner. In my family, I do most of the gross jobs, like cleaning bathrooms. If we are both at home, I am more likely to change diapers. My wife, on the other hand, does most of the cooking. If we each did the opposite, then she would lose her appetite twice.
It is unlikely that we will find any marriage in this country in which both partners do exactly 50% of each activity. Each partnership should involve recognition of the equal value and dignity of each individual, which is not incompatible with mutually agreeable complementarity in which different people agree to do different things.
I am not naive enough to think that there are not troubled situations in which the division of activities does not arise from mutual agreement, cases in which tasks are taken on because one partner is unwilling to participate or one person is pressured into doing things he or she would rather not do, but in those cases, surely it would make more sense to attend to a lack of agency and empowerment, as opposed to introducing a blanket policy that would seek to reorder how all couples divide their responsibilities.
This budget bemoans the “unequal sharing of caregiver responsibilities”. Page 45 of the budget notes that 92% of EI parental leave is paid to women, while 8% is paid to men. Parenthetically, the graphs do presume a gender binary, but we will leave that for another day.
This is quite a historic gap, 92% to 8%, but it is not at all obvious that all or even most of that gap is the result of sexism or disempowerment. Most women claiming EI parental leave benefits tend to be relatively young, between 25 and 34 years old. These women grew up in a relatively different world from that in which many members of the House grew up, especially in terms of opportunities for women.
They also have an experience that is not yet fully reflected in overall pay equity numbers. About 34% of these young women have a university degree, for example, as compared to 26% of men the same age. Young women, the ones most likely to have children today, have a dramatic educational advantage over men, yet they are also much more likely to take parental leave.
Why is that? Maybe it is because they want to. Maybe that was their personal choice, and that is all there is to it. Maybe in the privacy of the discussions that happen between couples, women are statistically more likely to express a preference for having that extra time with an infant child. Some ideologues might see this as a problem, that it is the result of patriarchal social programming and a false consciousness, but I would argue that as long as women are freely making this choice, there is no problem.
I would note as well that parental leave is for those caring for newborns. It may be that the division of caregiving responsibilities is somewhat different for older children. Perhaps women are more likely to take on caregiving responsibilities for infants because some women choose to breastfeed. Reliable statistics show that 100% of breastfeeding done in this country is done by women. Perhaps the finance minister aspires to change that in the next budget.
At a very practical level, if a mother wishes to breastfeed, it is difficult for her to forgo parental leave. I am sure that there is more that we and those in private sector workplaces could do to make it easier for women to breastfeed on the go, but that will not change the fact that it is not always practical for the non-breastfeeding partner to provide the ongoing care and then also to cart the baby back and forth to an external workplace every time the child needs to eat. It is in these practical details that most families live their lives and make decisions about the division of caregiving responsibilities.
On the issue of men taking parental leave, I hope that if the Prime Minister's family is blessed with another child, he will consider leading by example and take parental leave himself. Many of my constituents would appreciate having the Prime Minister thus occupied.
In pursuit of higher GDP, this budget limits women's choices by setting aside a portion of parental leave for each partner. It prefers a system of more limited choice to one in which parents have full freedom to divide up their leave as they see fit. Our approach is to seek more choice, not less, because we believe that the objective of equality is well-being, empowerment, and equality itself, not ideology and not GDP. Our leader has proposed a private member's bill to eliminate the tax on El parental leave, regardless of who takes it, when, or why.
In addition to tax reductions, many parents I have talked to are looking for policies that will give them more choice and flexibility. Many want to spend more time with their children through flexible work arrangements that allow them to set their own hours, work from home, and receive some parental leave benefits along the way.
If a woman wants to breastfeed while working from home, which is often more practical than bringing a baby to work, policy approaches such as simplifying the work-from-home tax deductions and reducing the clawbacks for those who work while on parental leave would go a long way. Incidentally, that would likely also lead to more women doing paid work, the finance minister's apparent principal objective, though it would not lead to a reduction in the proportion of leave claimed by women. Most critically, it would increase the empowerment and range of choice for women, not constrain them. In our view, that is both the right approach and the truly feminist approach.
I do want to note that I agree with the budget's desire to collect disaggregated data to help us understand the experience of visible-minority Canadians. A first step to addressing inequality is gathering data.
Further, I recently had a constituent highlight to me how efforts by the government to get cheaper prices on drugs can inadvertently lead to delayed drug approval. I do hope that this issue is considered in the context of the upcoming pharmacare discussion.