Why electoral reform would hurt Quebec

Could Quebec’s place in the federation decline in the coming years?

Here’s an interesting study that, combined with Andrew’s argument the Conservative victory is rooted in the West and Ontario, bolsters the notion Quebec’s place in the federation could be in decline over the coming years. Under the catchy title “Representation and regional redistribution in federations,” political scientists Tiberiu Dragu and Jonathan Rodden show that over-represented regions in a federation tend to get a greater share of federal funds. So the more politicians a province sends to the central government, the more money it can expect from the federation. Dragu and Rodden give two reasons for this: increased representation “increases a region’s proposal power, and it makes a region a more attractive coalitional partner for other proposers. Both of these effects work unambiguously in the same direction.”

What’s most interesting is that the multi-country* study rules out other qualities, like wealth, as defining factors in how spending is allocated. “It is particularly useful that our federations include some cases in which rich states are over-represented, some cases in which poor states are over-represented, and some in which there is no relationship between income and representation,” the authors write. “We show that the connection between representation and grants is strong in each of these settings.”

In Canada, where the poorest provinces are the most over-represented, the federal system takes on a progressive quality. That is, the money flows from the rich to the poor. But the opposite is true in Argentina and Mexico, where wealthy provinces have the most seats in government. There, the relatively rich regions are the greatest beneficiaries of federal spending.

The reason this is important to Quebec is that the Conservatives are likely to preside over a re-alignment in the House of Commons that will see an increase in the number of seats for Ontario and the West, i.e. the regions that elected them. The re-alignment proposed last spring—and staunchly opposed by the now-irrelevant Bloc Québécois—would see Ontario get 18 new seats, Alberta get five and British Columbia seven, for a new total of 338 MPs. The Bloc didn’t like the idea because it would strip Quebec of the slight advantage it currently holds in terms of representation.

With 75 MPs out of 308 (24.4 per cent), Quebec is currently over-represented in the House of Commons with respect to its overall share of the population (23.2 per cent). However, if the House were to grow to 338 seats, Quebec’s share of seats would shrink to 22.2 per cent, meaning it would—at least immediately—be under-represented. I say “at least immediately” because the seat re-allocation is supposed to reflect a long-term demographic shift under which Quebec’s share of Canadian population is projected to decline.

The only saving grace for Quebec is that its regional rivals would continue to be under-represented: the share of MPs from Ontario, home to 38.7 per cent of Canadians, would grow from 34.4 per cent to 36.7 per cent; Alberta (10.9 per cent of the population) would go from having 9.1 per cent of MPs to 9.8 per cent; and B.C. (13.3 per cent of the population) would go from having 11.7 per cent of MPs to 12.7 per cent. So the change would go a long way to narrowing the gap even if it suggests federal spending will continue to be progressive. For Quebec, the change could translate into significantly fewer federal dollars, giving Ottawa more leeway to—as the Conservatives themselves like to put it—’deliver the goods’ to those mostly wealthy regions in the ROC that elected them. Better fire up those gazebo factories—Alberta’s gonna need a few.


*The study used data on intergovernmental grants, population, land area, legislative representation, and real gross provincial product from 24 Argentine provinces (1980- 2001), eight Australian states and two territories (1970-2001), 27 Brazilian states (1986-2001), 10 Canadian provinces (1968-1997), 10 German Laender prior to unification (1970-1990), and 16 thereafter (1991-2003), 32 Mexican states (1993-2006), 17 Autonomous Communities in Spain (1984-2001), 26 Swiss Cantons (1980-2008), and 50 U.S. states (1977-1997).

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