Elle Beaver brings you profiles of the women who are shaping the 2015 federal election (#elxn42), the pundits, spin-doctors, journalists and activists who are making headlines, shaping our political landscape and who are vying for YOUR vote! In this edition, we focus on Jenni Byrne, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top political advisors and one of Canada’s most powerful women.
She has been called Stephen Harper’s ‘enforcer,’ a ‘henchwoman,’ the ‘other’ woman behind his regime, the most powerful woman in Ottawa.
Jenni Byrne – that small-town, blue-collar gal from Fenelon Falls – is the dynamo who helped consolidate Harper’s power in Official Ottawa, a fierce political operative who delivered his majority Conservative government and kept her finger on the pulse of the political base – or to paraphrase her former colleague Yaroslav Baran, the woman who knows what small-town Canada is talking about at Tim Hortons.
But when the Harper campaign was knocked-off its tightly scripted messaging by two rogue candidates – the first who was caught by CBC’s Marketplace urinating in a coffee cup during a service call, the second removed for mocking mentally disabled people in prank calls – Jenni Byrne was sent packing back to Ottawa. The woman who prided herself in ‘keeping tabs on who’s spending too much time at Hy’s Steakhouse or at cocktail parties thrown by lobbyists,’ hadn’t adequately screened two candidates who were now the cause of such embarrassment. And rumour has it that Harper is less than pleased, focusing most of his anger on Byrne.
For some, it might be justice – Byrne, after all, has a reputation for being ‘a hard-ass with a temper,’ for ‘yelling a lot,’ killing careers on a whim and dividing the loyalties of the Prime Minister (some hold her responsible for the Prime Minister’s change in tone around Nigel Wright’s role in the Duffy scandal). As one ‘well-connected Conservative’ told The Globe and Mail, “Once Harper falls, Jenni’s going to get ripped apart by a lot of that crowd.”
But to others, it’s entirely possible that Byrne has perhaps been judged more harshly simply because she’s a woman. Politics, after all, continue to be a boy’s club – and Byrne likely had a serious fight on her hands to earn fear and respect. In his detailed profile of Byrne for The Globe and Mail, Adam Radwanski writes:
Some Conservatives wonder aloud if negative reactions to her reflect a sexist double standard. Being yelled at or threatened or disciplined by senior staff, even getting caught in nasty turf battles with them, has long been one of the pleasures of working in politics; it just usually hasn’t been a young woman dishing it out. (emphasis is ours)
Disclaimer: as a former political aide in the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Liberals, I can attest that Parliament Hill is a hotbed of everyday sexism (ie: coffee fetching) and ‘hard-assery’ (ie: yelling). Bottom line: there doesn’t seem to be much difference between Jenni Byrne and the hard-asses who worked the corridors of power a decade ago, male or female.
And so while Jenni Byrne might in fact have the reputation of an enforcer, we can’t help but salute a woman climbed to the top and consolidated her own fortunes. Whether or not she falls, Byrne will still go down in political history as a woman of great power and influence.
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