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Saturday, April 03, 2010

In support of Representation by Population

The House of Commons in the Parliament of Canada was established on the principle of representation by population. Every citizen of Canada would have equal representation and an equal vote in the election. Right from the beginning this principle was compromised with assurances towards Quebec and a rule that there must never be fewer MPs than Senators representing a province. Still, it is the Rep by Pop principle that guides seat distribution in the House of Commons.

Despite this principle, over time, some provinces have become overrepresented and others have become underrepresented in the House of Commons. My former home riding of Trinity-Spadina had a larger population than the entire province of PEI, which has four MPs. Ontario and certain western provinces have rightly complained that the balance of power in the House of Commons does not represent the balance of population in Canada.

After decades of inaction the federal government is finally doing something about it, or at least they are once again trying to do something about it. The Conservative government is reintroducing their 2007 proposal to change the distribution formula and add more seats to the House of Commons to better reflect population. A consequence of doing this is that provinces that have not increased their population will have a smaller proportion of seats.

You can expect Quebec, or more specifically the BQ, to complain about this. They accuse the government of trying to weaken the voice of Quebec. This seems to be framed as some Lord Durham-like plot to assimilate French speakers, which is absurd.

Quebec nationalists are not the only ones complaining. Professor Donald Savoie is warning that Atlantic Canada is also going to lose out. He points out that the Maritimes has been losing representation since the time of Confederation (which makes sense considering that the population compared to the rest of the country has consistently declined). He even goes as far to say that maybe Joseph Howe was right and Confederation was a bad idea (not that Nova Scotia had much of a choice but that’s another story).

He continues by saying that Canada is a federal state and should thus have regional representation. This sort of thing is acceptable, according to Professor Savoie, in unitary states such as France but unacceptable in federal Canada. Actually the reverse is true, regional representation is not as big of a problem exactly because Canada is a federation.

In a unitary state (i.e. a state with no regional governments) there are still often regional differences. These differences have to be accommodated somehow or else there will be political discord. In the case of the United Kingdom pre-1999, Scottish distinctiveness was accommodated by over representation in the House of Commons. The idea was that if you give Scotland a strong voice they will be able to protect their interests and culture.

After the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, the number of Scottish MPs was reduced to be more in line with the population distribution in the UK. It was universally acknowledged that with devolved government the need for an over-represented Scotland no longer existed. Scotland could now carry out its own policies in key areas.

This argument can not only be applied to Canada, but it is even more applicable. The amount of autonomy that a Canadian province enjoys is the envy of Scottish nationalists. Canadian provinces don’t need special representation in the House of Commons because they have their own government. They have their own legislatures to create policies that they want. And if there is something happening in the federal government that interferes with Nova Scotia’s interests, they have their very own Premier to take on the Prime Minister.

Would it be in a region’s interests to have more representation in Ottawa? Certainly, but that becomes less vital because we are in a federation, not more vital. It is up to Donald Savoie and the BQ to demonstrate why people East of Ontario need more representation than everyone else. They can’t argue that it is because of distinctiveness because they already have their very own governments to represent that distinctiveness.

Equal representation is an important principle in democracy, and if that principle is going to be compromised than there has to be a good reason. Appealing to the narrow regional interests of a few is not reason good enough.

Posted by Hugh MacIntyre on April 3, 2010 in Canadian Politics, Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


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