Stéphane Dion’s not-so-crazy idea [seats in parliament]

NationalPost.com – opinion
Nov. 19, 2011.   Editorial

Say what you will about Stéphane Dion’s disastrous tenure as Liberal leader from 2006 to 2008. When he was Intergovernmental Affairs minister in the mid-1990s, there were few Canadian politicians who better understood our nation’s constitutional laws and conventions. Under Jean Chrétien, Mr. Dion took the lead in debunking the most spurious claims emitting from Quebec’s sovereigntists, and then checkmated them by initiating the Supreme Court reference litigation that eventually would become the basis for the landmark Clarity Act. Notwithstanding what he and Michael Ignatieff did to the Liberal Party brand, few Canadians have done more to keep this country together that Stéphane Dion.

He is again demonstrating his legal skills with a proposal that would deal with the under-representation of Ontario, B.C. and Alberta in the House of Commons by redistributing the current Parliamentary 308 seats rather than expanding the chamber to 338 members, as proposed by the governing Tories.

This editorial board may have been a little cavalier on Thursday, when we rejected Liberal MP Marc Garneau’s suggested redistribution scheme out of hand. Now that Mr. Dion has entered the scene and put numbers behind Mr. Garneau’s words, the notion doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as Mr. Garneau’s somewhat speculative rhetoric suggested. The Liberal plan is very technocratic and politically difficult – it involves taking seats away from Quebec, for one thing – but it is at least worth considering as an alternative to adding more MPs at a cost of up to $18 million per year.

Since the 1950s, it has been taken as a given that Quebec must always have 75 seats in the Commons, no matter how low its share of the nation’s population. (It was this received wisdom that was the basis for our Thursday editorial on the subject.) But while the Constitution since then has stipulated that Quebec’s contingent must be used as the baseline for determining the number of seats in the rest of the provinces, according to the Liberals, the 75-seat requirement is not a hard-and-fast “floor” for the size of Quebec’s delegation. Rather, Section 44 of the Constitution allows Parliament to alter the size of the Quebec caucus, so long as Quebec’s representation remains proportionate.

(Quebec politicians will undoubtedly challenge this interpretation. They have long maintained that while the Constitution does not stipulate 75 seats, per se, it does assure Quebec will not lose seats, which amounts to the same thing.)

Instead of expanding the Commons by 30 seats – 15 in Ontario, six each in Alberta and B.C. and three in Quebec – the Liberals would take three seats from Quebec, dropping its contingent to 72, then take two more from each of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and one each from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and give those nine to Ontario (four), Alberta (three) and B.C. (two).

This doesn’t deal effectively with the gross over-representation of the smallest provinces, but then neither does the Tories’ scheme. Nor does the Liberal plan fully eliminate the underrepresentation of our three fastest-growing provinces. However – and here is the surprise – the Liberals’ redistribution idea leaves Ontario, Alberta and B.C. no more under-represented than the addition of all the new MPs envisioned by the Tories.

At present, Ontario has 11% fewer MPs than its population warrants, B.C. has 12% fewer and Alberta has 17%. If the Tories manage to add another 30 Commons seats, Ontario will still be 8% under-represented, as will Alberta, while B.C. falls to just 6%. Coincidentally, those are the same percentages of under-representation that would remain under the Liberals’ redistribution proposal.

Also under the Liberal plan, Quebec’s over-representation rate of 5% would fall to just 1% (while it would be entirely eliminated under the Tory plan).

We’re dubious about the Liberals’ stated reasons for backing redistribution over Commons expansion. Since when did they start caring about preventing a few million dollars in new federal expenditures? It’s more likely that they have hit on an idea they believe will be popular in the rest of Canada, but unpopular in Quebec, and are hoping to hang the political damage for attempting it on the Tory government that would have to implement it.

Yet as cynical as the Liberal plan is, it’s actually quite clever. And it would be worth debating before the Tory law is passed. In any event, it’s good to see Mr. Dion doing what he does best.

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