Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Will anyone stand-up for equality of parliamentary representation?

With our parliamentarians having returned to Ottawa this week, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to just how our parliament is composed. Representation in the House of Commons is sure to be a contentious issue once again, and I’m having a hard time finding a sensible position from any of the parties.

I won’t rehash all the background – long story short, representation in the lower house is supposed to be by population, but population shifts across the country over the years mean the current house isn’t truly representative of today’s Canada. Suburban/urban areas in British Columbia, Alberta are extremely under-represented.

The Conservatives have had a proposal on the table for several years to add 30 seats (five in Alberta, seven in B.C. and 18 in Ontario) that would make some progress toward more representative representation. It has gone through some modifications following complaints from various quarters, and they haven’t been in much of a hurry to move forward with it. Indeed, they seemed to agree with the other parties in the last parliament to quietly shelve it until after the election – none of them wanted the issue floating around during a campaign.

Why? That’s the heart of the issue: it’s all about Quebec. Any other province would accept their population doesn’t warrant more seats but, for Quebec, it’s a “national unity” issue. With other regions growing, they see their influence in the House of Common declining. And they’re demanding artificial measures (extra seats not warranted by population) in recognition of their “special” status. The most common ask: a guaranteed floor of 25 per cent of HoC seats, regardless of population.

It’s called the Senate

I strongly disagree with this. Representation in the House of Commons should be by population, period. Giving one region unequal weighting would mean taking representation from another region; that’s unfair and that’s not the purpose of the lower chamber.

Do I agree that Quebec has a unique perspective? Yes. And I believe the Maritimes, Ontario, Western Canada and British Columbia do too. And the territories. And I believe having a regional bulkwark to a pure rep by pop system that gives Ontario a very large voice is important and desirable.

And we already have a body designed to provide (in theory) that regional check: It’s called the Senate. The lower house is intended as the representative house; the upper the regional check.

Now the Senate is in need of reform and redistribution as well. But if you want to build a truly effective and representative parliamentary democracy, gerrymandering commons representation isn’t the answer. Reform the Senate so it is fairly distributed along regional lines, with elected Senators who have a clear mandate and set of powers and responsibilities.

About those Commons seats

Now, I won’t hold my breath for any of the political parties to start advocating comprehensive and meaningful Senate reform. And sorry, what the Conservatives have been doing here has been hurting, not helping.

I’d be more hopeful of someone taking a logical position on Commons representation though. Sadly, no such luck so far.

There’s some hope in the Conservative position. It could go further, but it’s a step in the right direction. While they’ve disavowed special considerations for Quebec, as mentioned they’ve shown no hurry to move forward with actual legislation either.

My Liberals have been hard to pin down. Before the election they helped to delay the proposal, and splits were evident between their Quebec caucus and the rest of the members. After the election? Interim leader Bob Rae gave an interview that left me puzzled.

(Rae) predicted that the prime minister will come up with a compromise on the seat legislation bill to deal with Quebec's concerns.

"I don't think you can take Quebec for granted, and I think the prime minister's going to have to look again at the question of the number of Quebec seats. It doesn't mean B.C., Alberta and Ontario won't get more seats - of course we will."

OK, so he wants special dispensation for Quebec?

Rae wouldn't say whether or not he supports the position of many Quebec nationalists that the province should be guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats.

So compromise if necessary, but not necessarily that compromise? OK, but what then? After all, this is about national unity, somehow.

With their new large Quebec caucus, the NDP has been a little more clear on its position: special seats for Quebec.

(Brian Topp) giving extra seats to Quebec would be a way to recognize its status as a nation within Canada.

"I think we need to find an appropriate Canadian compromise," he said at a news conference announcing his candidacy.

And the guy that may not run:

The NDP has argued that Quebec should be guaranteed to maintain its current share of the seats. That would require the 338-seat Commons to be swollen further by boosting Quebec's allotment to 82 or 83 seats, from the current 75.

Earlier Monday, Mulcair told reporters that such a move is consistent with the 2006 "nation" motion and the 1991 Supreme Court of Canada decision.

"It would be an irony to say that Quebec constitutes — the Quebecois constitute — a nation within Canada and then the first thing you do is you reduce the . . . weight of Quebecers within the House of Commons."

Nation reflux disease

There is a certain irony that many of the arguments being made come back to the Quebec nation resolution of 2006, hailed at the time as a master-stroke of strategic genius by Prime Minister Harper. My worry then was that you can say it’s just symbolism, but empty symbolism isn’t going to satisfy anyone; eventually they’ll want something real. Now those chickens are coming home to roost: the Quebec nationalists want some meat on that nation bone we gave them. The question is what happens if they don’t get it?

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The Rat said...

I firmly believe that this IS a national unity issue, but I think it may well be the provinces west of Quebec thinking about leaving. It was bad enough in the West in the last century when the West was seen as a thinly populated resource supplier to the East. But if we now take away the benefit of growing population to placate that same Eastern base what's the use of being part of Canada? If the West wants in, and I'm not sure if it really does, then shutting the West out of power by creating a floor for representation to Quebec will be the proverbial straw.

Representation by population is the cornerstone of democracy.

Skinny Dipper said...

I will be inclined to agree with The Rat in that if Quebec gets its 25% minimum representation in the House of Commons and if six of the nine English Canadian provinces get their minimum floors, then provinces like BC, Alberta, and Ontario may seek other solutions such as more autonomy. BC and Alberta may not ask for more powers while the Harper Conservatives are in power. Some day when the Conservatives lose power and when BC and Alberta lose government representation, these two provinces could ask for more autonomy as they would be under represented in the House of Commons (and Senate).

Loraine Lamontagne said...

What is your position that "Representation in the House of Commons should be by population, period" based on? Is it your opinion, which I respect, or something else, and if so please quote.

Skinny Dipper: Why would BC and AB not ask for more power while the Conservatives are in power? This is about politics, not a sectarian religious belief. Why would the West lose government representation if the Conservatives lose in the next election? I understand that in AB in particular politics operates outside of what everywhere else in the world is considered normal for a democracy (you know of any other democratic jurisdiction on earth where one party has held on to power for 40 years? I can only think of Cuba and that's no democracy) but nothing prevents Albertans to vote for another party.

Koby said...

It makes no sense whatsoever to complain about "Suburban/urban areas in British Columbia, Alberta" being extremely under-represented and then to call for an "effective" Senate in your next breath. None. Zip. The issue is not that suburban/urban areas in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario are extremely extremely under-represented in the House of Commons per say. It is that these areas do not have the political near clout they deserve. Giving these regions more MPs, but dramatically reducing their political clout by having an "effective" senate makes things much worse and not better.

People not provinces or regions deserve equal representation. A province is no more or less than the people that make up that province. Furthermore, what you fail to appreciate is that simply by virtue of having provincial jurisdiction and provincial representation people living in Canada’s less populated provinces have already to have means of leveraging far more attention and support from the Federal government than their numbers warrant. There is more. There is also the typically asinine Canadian tradition of handing out cabinet posts based not on talent but region.

Vancouverois said...

Canadians already rejected this idea of guaranteed disproportionately high representation for Quebec, when we rejected the Charlottetown Accord.

The "nation" resolution was a mistake.

Mr Jedras, I have to say that I am constantly appalled at how your Party - of all the parties! - still shows signs of pandering to Quebec nationalism. Mr Rae's ambiguity on this subject once again makes the Liberals look devious and unprincipled: and in this case it's particularly foolish, because your party has nothing to gain by it. It profoundly offends citizens outside Quebec, without gaining any offsetting votes from Quebec nationalists.

Quebeckers will never forget that it was the Liberal Party that patriated the Constitution without Levesque's consent. It's ridiculous to hope that they will. The only reasonable way for the Liberal Party to win more votes in Quebec is to acknowledge their role in this patriation, and JUSTIFY it. It's high time your party started to counter the myths and propaganda that Mulroney and his separatist cohorts have spread so successfully from 1984 onwards.

Pandering to Quebec nationalism has never accomplished anything other than to strengthen the separatist movement. Surely now, of all times - when the Liberal Party's remaining strength lies only in federalist areas of Canada - represents an opportunity to break with that damaging approach to the national unity question.