Electoral injustice: Cities are getting the shaft

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/opinions/opinion
Published Dec. 8, 2010.   Jeffrey Simpson

Voters of Greater Toronto, Calgary and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland: Beware! You’re about to get shafted again by your federal Parliament.

These areas, and other urban and suburban ones across Canada, are already being shafted by the electoral map that heavily favours rural and northern areas. Ridings there already have many fewer voters – tens of thousands, in some cases – than those in urban and suburban areas. And, of course, the Atlantic provinces and Quebec already have too many seats relative to the rest of Canada, courtesy of deals made at Confederation or later.

The latest shaft apparently comes from a very quiet agreement by the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats to shelve a bill that would have given Ontario 18 new seats, B.C. seven and Alberta five – seats to which they’re entitled under the last census.

Apportioning seats among provinces is supposed to be a technical, straightforward matter that starts with the decimal census. Based on the population of each province and territory, seats are allocated after taking into account the special deals for Atlantic Canada and Quebec. Then it’s up to non-partisan redistribution commissions (made up of political scientists, retired judges and the like) to draw the constituency boundaries within each province. There’s an appeal to the process that sometimes can wind up in a parliamentary committee.

Generally speaking, the system is established to prevent politicians from fiddling with the law and the principle of one person/one vote that underpins the law.

Politicians, however, have been known to fiddle, and they’re fiddling again. They should be stopped as fast as possible, because Parliament belongs to the people, not the political parties or the self-seeking provinces.

Before the last election, seized of the census count and the apportionment of seats among provinces that flowed from the census, the Harper government tried to pull a fast and dirty on Ontario.

With then-House leader Peter Van Loan actually from Ontario, the government concocted a convoluted explanation why Ontario shouldn’t get 18 more seats but something less. B.C. and Alberta, Conservative strongholds, could get their fair share, but not Ontario. Premier Dalton McGuinty (and others) rightly blew a gasket, and the Conservative deviousness died on the order paper.

Why did the Harperites even try to be devious, mocking the one-person/one-vote principle? Because Quebec objected, pure and simple. The province, knowing its relative strength would decline under redistribution for the unassailably logical reason that its population was not growing, concocted a plea of its own. Quebec is a “nation,” said the National Assembly, and therefore doesn’t deserve to lose seats. In typical Quebec fashion, the National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution endorsing this fiction.

This self-definition, whatever its cosmological, epistemological, atavistic, cultural or descriptive power, had nothing to do with seats in Parliament. It was just a power play, and the Harperites folded because they themselves had declared the Quebecois to be a “nation,” courtesy of a snap decision by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and were trying to tickle Quebec’s fancy by any available means.

That destined-to-fail flirtation was rebuffed in the last election, so the Harperites actually began to stand on principle. Ontario would get its new seats, after all, as would B.C. and Alberta. So said the Harper government, repeatedly. Case closed.

Now fear of irritating Quebec, plus renewed special pleading from the already overrepresented Atlantic provinces, has caused all major parties to push the pause button on the legislation, thereby shafting the urban areas in these provinces that, by law and right, should have more seats. The Bloc Québécois, being only interested in Quebec, obviously wants no change in the electoral map.

It’s also possible that rural and northern MPs in the provinces due more seats might silently be cheering on the special pleaders, since their areas within provinces will lose relative clout. No doubt, they’d argue that their ridings are already too big geographically.

Bottom line: Fast-growing and urban/suburban parts of Canada are about to be done yet another electoral injustice by a Parliament whose electoral composition already mocks contemporary Canada.

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