Wiseman: Redistributing seats in the House of Commons

Punchy commentary:

When governments redistribute seats in the House of Commons, they often claim they are doing what the public wants or acting in the interests of fairness. When Mike Harris’ Conservative government reduced the number of MPPs at Queen’s Park in 1996, they labelled their bill the Fewer Politicians Act. When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives increased seats in the Commons in 2011, they branded their bill the Fair Representation Act. To be consistent, Jim Flaherty, John Baird, and Tony Clement, senior cabinet ministers in both governments, ought to have termed their federal bill the More Politicians Act.

As required by law and shifts in the population, Elections Canada has determined that the House ought to expand by four seats, from 338 to 342, adding three seats for Alberta, one each for Ontario and British Columbia, and reducing Quebec’s seats by one, from 78 to 77.

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Rather than constantly enlarging the House as two acts of Parliament require—the 1985 grandfather clause and the 2011 representation rule—Parliament ought to keep to the constitutional principle established at Confederation: proportionate provincial representation. The only exception is the “senatorial clause,” added to the Constitution by Westminster in 1915, entitling provinces to no fewer MPs than Senators. Changing that rule requires the unanimous consent of the provinces and Parliament, an impossibility.

Parliament ought to repeal both the “grandfather clause” and the “representation rule.” Neither required the consent of provinces and neither requires provincial consent for revocation. Parliament should also consider reducing and fixing a permanent number of seats. If the United States can manage with 435 Congressional representatives for 334 million people, 250 MPs ought to be sufficient to represent Canada’s 38 million people. MPs fearful of losing their jobs will argue that they are essential to serving their constituents, but more constituency staff could easily do that.

MPs are elected to represent their constituents and the parties under whose banners they run. They are not elected to represent provinces. Senators are appointed to represent provincial interests. Premiers do it especially well. But premiers have no more business in the redistribution of Commons seats than the prime minister has in how seats are distributed in a province. The idea that MPs represent their province holds no water. If it did, MPs would vote along provincial lines. The reality is they vote strictly along party lines. What constituents or provincial legislatures prefer is secondary to the preferences of party whips.

The Bloc Québécois makes much of the fact that Parliament has recognized Quebec as a nation. Quebec Premier François Legault claims “the nation of Quebec deserves a certain level of representation” regardless of its population. This begs some questions including: Should Quebec’s First Nations be entitled to a certain level of representation in the National Assembly regardless of their population since the assembly has assigned the status of “nation” to eleven provincial aboriginal groups including the Inuit, Mohawk, Cree, Algonquin, and Naskapi? Carrying Quebec’s brief, Yves-François Blanchet, whose BQ rejected the 1992 Charlottetown Accord which guaranteed Quebec 25 per cent of Commons seats in perpetuity, is outraged at the prospect of his province losing a seat. He has promised to unleash the “fires of hell” if it does.

Pure laine (dyed in the wool) or de souche (old-stock) francophones may claim to be a nation, but Quebec is merely a territory. Stephen Harper’s description of the Québécois is appropriate: “a unique people bonded together by a common language, culture and history—a nation.” However, increasing numbers of Quebecers, like provincial Liberal leader Dominique Anglade, do not fit that definition. Mordechai Richler, whose writings are set in the province, was dismissed as “not one of us” and not a “real Quebecer” by the co-chair of Quebec’s Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec. Jacques Parizeau infamously articulated the distinction between the Québécois de souche and other Quebecers when he declared that “money and the ethnic vote” had determined the outcome of Quebec’s 1995 referendum.

Bloc Québécois founder Lucien Bouchard claimed, “Canada is not a real country” on account of its multicultural complexion, and Quebec’s governments have rejected Canada’s multiculturalism policy. Quebec is certainly not a country and if it can make the claim to nationhood, why should not Saskatchewan? Yes, the French fact makes Quebec—the only jurisdiction on the continent where a majority are francophones—distinctive in a way that Saskatchewan is not, but the language of nationhood is inappropriate for both.

If Quebec must have more MPs than to which it is entitled, let Parliament adopt another feature of the United States Congress: non-voting members. All provinces, except Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, have lost seats in the past. Quebec is a cry baby in demanding overrepresentation and the federal political parties are too eager to cater to its howls.

Nelson Wiseman is the author of Partisan Odysseys: Canada’s Political Parties(University of Toronto Press).

Source: Redistributing seats in the House of Commons

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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