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

Ibbitson: Trudeau’s decision over Quebec’s seats puts him at risk either way

Expect government will bend with no opposition from other parties, given precedents of Bills 21 and 96, even if questionable to do so:

When Justin Trudeau returns from his European travels, he will need to decide, and quickly, whether to prevent Quebec from losing a seat in the House of Commons.

Politically, all options are bad for the Prime Minister.

Back in 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government moved to correct the problem of chronic underrepresentation in the House of Commons for the fast-growing provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. In the final version of the formula enshrined in the Fair Representation Act, Quebec was also awarded extra seats, to ensure its representation in the House fairly reflected its share of the national population.

As required by law and the Constitution, Elections Canada applied the 2011 formula for its latest calculation of the distribution of seats in Parliament. The results, released two weeks ago, show the House of Commons growing by four seats, from 338 to 342. Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario will receive additional seats. But Quebec will have one seat taken away, reducing its representation from 78 to 77.

Not surprisingly, the Bloc Québécois and the Quebec government are demanding that the province’s representation not diminish, on the grounds that its MPs have a special mandate in the House to speak for and protect Quebec’s culture and language.

The Liberal government has two options. The first is to do nothing and allow Elections Canada to proceed with redistribution by establishing electoral commissions for each province that will redraw riding boundaries based on the latest census data. That process is scheduled to begin in February.

The second option is to introduce a new redistribution formula through legislation. That formula could ensure that Quebec’s seat count does not fall below its current 78 seats, though the province’s relative weight would decline as the House expands in size.

As an alternative, the formula could guarantee that Quebec’s representation never drops below, say, 25 per cent of all seats in the House. That was a provision in the Charlottetown accord of 1992, which was defeated in a referendum.

Any legislation would need to be introduced soon, so that Elections Canada knows whether, when and how to proceed with redistribution. But moving to protect Quebec’s interests will prove contentious.

“There’s risk if he does do it and there’s risk if he doesn’t do it,” Professor Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, told me. Allowing the existing representation order to stand would anger Quebec voters, who would face a future of steadily weakening influence in Ottawa.

But moving to protect Quebec’s standing in the House would further anger Western voters who believe French Canada’s interests are protected while theirs are ignored.

This is especially true in the wake of the new cabinet announced last week, which weakened Prairie influence and emphasized the fight against climate change over oil-and-gas interests.

When asked how he would address the problem, Benjamin Forest, who researches the political representation of minorities at McGill University, said, “I would take the easy way out and add enough seats” so that Quebec once again has 78 seats in the House.

Many voters complain about sending more and more MPs to Ottawa. But Canada itself is growing, adding a million people every two or three years, mostly through immigration. The House should reflect that growth.

As well, previous federal governments at different times guaranteed smaller provinces a minimum number of seats, resulting in a House of Commons skewed in favour of rural interests. The riding of Cardigan, Prince Edward Island, has a population of just over 36,000; Cypress Hills—Grasslands in Saskatchewan has 68,000. But Vancouver East has 110,000 and the riding of Burlington, in Greater Toronto, has 121,000.

Adding more urban seats would make the House more democratic by diminishing the relative weight of the countryside, and increasing the importance of urban issues, such as transit, over rural, such as dairy supports.

Of course the best solution to Quebec’s declining demographic influence in the House would be for the province to increase its population through immigration. Instead, Premier François Legault has cut back on immigration. So long as that continues, the influence of Quebec must ultimately decline, however much politicians rejig the House of Commons to prevent it.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-trudeaus-decision-over-quebecs-seats-puts-him-at-risk-either-way/

A Harvard study shows that just thinking of “immigrants” makes people less generous

Interesting study and correlation (Canada not included, unfortunately):

Immigration has become a defining topic of elections and politics globally, from the US to the UK. Germany was the latest to capitulate to xenophobic tendencies, with chancellor Angela Merkel dialing back her policy of welcoming refugees and immigrants to appease immigration hawks within her own government.

A group of Harvard University researchers looked at the common threads between the backlash against immigrants in those and other developed countries. Their findings, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last month, point to misinformation and prejudice.

The study, written by Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano, and Stefanie Stantcheva, asked two sets of questions to a statistically representative sample of 22,500 people from France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the UK, and the US. One set was related to immigrants, defined as people living in their adopted country legally. The other was about wealth redistribution and welfare benefits. The order in which respondents answered the two sets of questions was randomized.

The study’s results: Making people think about immigration is an effective way to turn them off social programs to reduce poverty.

The people who answered the immigration questions first were “more averse to redistribution, believe inequality is less of a serious problem, and donate less to charity,” write the researchers. This was true even in European countries where support for welfare benefits is typically high.

Why does thinking about immigration make people less generous?

It likely has to do with their inaccurate perceptions about immigrants. Respondents to the Harvard poll in all countries saw immigrants as being poorer, more reliant on welfare, and less educated than they really were.

With the exception of the French, all respondents overestimated the share of Muslim immigrants and underestimated the share of Christians. They also estimated that immigrants were more numerous than they really are. In US, the country where disparity between perceptions and actual numbers was the most striking, respondents put immigrants’ share of the country’s population at 36%. It’s only 10%.

The inaccurate perceptions, the study notes, are systematic across income and education levels in all countries. This kind of prejudice makes for a politically powerful tool for those trying to cut back social benefits.

“Anti-redistribution parties, even those not averse to immigration per se, can play the immigration card to generate backlash against redistribution,” the researchers wrote.

Source: A Harvard study shows that just thinking of “immigrants” makes people less generous