Something in Parliament just doesn’t add up

Why isn’t Ottawa employing representation by population?
the editors
Something in Parliament just doesn't add up
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Representation by population is a simple enough idea in theory. Why is it taking Ottawa so long to put it into practice?
That citizens anywhere in the country ought to have an equal say in voting for their government is a foundational fact of Canada. And yet the weight of an individual’s vote varies considerably from province to province. A single vote cast in P.E.I., where ridings comprise approximately 33,000 people, carries far more heft than a ballot from Ontario, Alberta or British Columbia, where many ridings exceed 130,000.

In a report earlier this year, the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the University of Toronto pointed out that among major federal nations, Canada has the worst record for allocating political representation with respect to equity and fairness. By one measure, the deviation between ridings in Canada is three times that between Swiss cantons and 10 times the gap between United States congressional districts. Ontario in particular was judged to have the greatest level of federal under-representation among 113 provinces, states and cantons in the five countries studied.

The implications of this inequity are serious. It naturally undermines the fundamental premise of democratic fairness. As the Mowat Centre noted, this also has the unintended effect of limiting the political voice of Canada’s visible minorities and new immigrants, who tend to congregate in fast-growing urban areas in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.—those same provinces under-represented by our current system. The present allocation could also erode the confidence Canadians have in national redistributive programs, as voters in wealthier “have” provinces perceive they have less say in how their tax dollars are spent than those in “have-not” provinces.

Of course, part of the problem here is the complication of Canada itself. A series of historical compromises and special deals has created a crazy-quilt of rules governing political representation. No province can have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate. Neither can a province ever have seats taken away. As such, Quebec will always have 75 MPs and P.E.I. four, regardless of changing population realities. Despite these strictures, however, it is still possible to apply a healthy dose of logic and common sense to this puzzle.

Three times the Conservative government has introduced legislation that would add more seats to the House of Commons to correct the situation. The current effort, Bill C-12, would add 18 seats in Ontario, five in Alberta and seven in British Columbia, and make further readjustments every 10 years based on the census. It is a necessary reform, long overdue.

Of these three bills, however, the previous two died on the order paper with minimal debate. Minister of State for Democratic Reform Steven Fletcher claims the current bill will be up for discussion sometime next year, and might see the light of day in 2012. It’s not exactly on the fast track.

In fact, recent reports from Ottawa suggest this sluggish rate of progress is a sign that the Harper government has lost its appetite for democratic reform. Commitment from the opposition parties ranges from tepid (Liberal and NDP) to outright hostile (Bloc).

What might explain this lack of enthusiasm? Naked political calculations may have gotten in the way of the need for basic democratic fairness.

Regardless of their enthusiasm for rep-by-pop, all opposition parties seem keen to give Quebec and Atlantic Canada the opportunity to rail against the Harper government for attempting to reduce their influence in Ottawa. A desire to avoid such a scenario, particularly in the midst of a minority government, may explain the Tories hesitancy to push it forward now.

On the other hand, it bears observation that those regions that stand to gain new seats tend to provide current or prospective support for the Conservative party—namely Alberta and the fast-growing suburban rings around Toronto and Vancouver. Derailing these changes would clearly be in the best interests of the federal Liberals, particularly given recent polling data that suggests the Tories might be within striking distance of a majority.

This creates the curious situation in which the Tories are leery of reform because it may cost them support in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, while the Liberals are avoiding it because it may hurt them in Ontario and British Columbia.

Regardless of any such calculations, however, politics should not be allowed to impede fundamental democratic rights. All Canadians expect a basic fairness in their political representation. We don’t have it now. The sooner we get there, the better.