Thursday, December 15, 2011

Partisan dreck: Seat Redistribution Edition

The new seat redistribution bill recently passed the House of Commons, awarding new seats to Ontario, Quebec, BC and Alberta. Rarely have I seen commentary about legislation so thoroughly skewed by short-term partisan and regional interests, and it makes me ill.

I'll get my principles on the table. I favour representation-by-population in the House of Commons. If there are to be regional counterweights in our parliamentary and federalist system, they are supposed to be found in a Senate (which could be revamped) and in the provincial governments (which hold most of the key powers these days anyways). As such, I have no sympathy with the claim that Quebec's share of the House of Commons should remain fixed at a given percentage (a provision of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord that was widely denounced outside that province), and would have no difficulty with reducing the seat tallies of the Maritime and Atlantic Canadian provinces, overturning earlier legislation, if the appropriate legislative and/or constitutional changes were made. As such, there has been a lot for me to take issue with in the craven pandering that both the Liberals and NDP (the two parties I normally vote for) have been engaged in by objecting to this legislation.

And today, Twitter is abuzz with more partisan dreck in response to John Ibbitson's column hypothetically allocating these new seats according to the 2011 election results. This is not a "Conservative windfall". It's a long-overdue correction in an electoral system that has cheated urban Canada, and particularly Ontario, BC and Alberta of their equitable share of seats in the House of Commons. A decade ago the same allegation could have been made that such a change would have favoured the Liberals. Voting allegiances change over time, and seats are allocated based on population, not the party affiliation of the seats being divided and redistributed. It's not like the Conservative party is able to take the riding of Crowfoot (historically the site of some of their biggest single-riding majorities) and split it into 31 new ridings. And frankly, if you look at the Ontario provincial election, there is extremely good reason to think that new seats created in Mississauga-Brampton would be fair game for all three parties.

If our political discourse is devolving to the point where we refuse to engage in what should be routine corrections to the electoral map, then our system is completely broken. Perhaps the most ardent critics of these changes should openly admit that they are inspired by the political strategies of Maurice Duplessis, the Quebec Premier so well known for turning the rurally-skewed electoral map of his province to the advantage of the Union Nationale machine. It turns my stomach to watch one of the key principles of how Canadian democracy is supposed to operate being undermined for short-term political advantage and media soundbites.

Also, a word to the NDP and the Liberals. Do you honestly think that the Conservative Party of Canada is not keeping a detailed dossier for the next election of your quotes of why your party thinks Ontario, BC and Alberta don't deserve equitable representation in the House? How about making winning those new seats your priority, rather than trying to prevent their creation?

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At 4:58 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NDP has to focus on holding its seats in Quebec. Taking the position that you suggest would make them even less popular there, provide fodder to a potentially resurgent Bloc and give them no guarantee of winning the new seats created in English Canada. It would be a totally stupid strategy.

I am surprised that you would defend American-style rep-by-pop. I can't imagine we will ever agree on a EEE senate to defend the interests of the smaller provinces. Even if we did, it would marginalize Quebec's voice within the federation. It is not true that the provincial government controls everything of importance. A quick glance at the news since Harper got his majority shows the extent to which a Canadian PM (with no support in QC) can adversely affect the lives of QCers.

At 8:12 am, Blogger Matt said...

I don't agree, anonymous, that hitching their wagon to the "Quebec's share of seats in the House of Commons must never fall, regardless of population shifts" line is a winning strategy for the NDP. There are more moderate stances that the party could have taken - indeed, the Liberals had managed to deal with this issue pretty well for decades, as other provinces, but not Quebec, saw their seat totals increase. I also think that hitching the party's wagon to a primarily Quebec-centric strategy is foolhardy. The party will be very unlikely to hold onto all of the seats it has in the province, there is almost zero growth potential (in terms of seats) for the party in QC, and the electorate in that province is extremely volatile. That means that that the NDP will need to make gains somewhere else. Right now, Ontario and BC seem the most likely avenues for growth, and those are the provinces that would suffer if new House of Commons seats aren't added. If the last several decades have taught us anything, it is that it is increasingly Ontario that is the make-or-break province for majority governments (and most minority governments).

I don't support EEE, for what it's worth. The population variances between our provinces are too great for me to be able to defend a system that would give PEI the same weight as Ontario. But we could change the way Senators are appointed or elected, to make them more effective voices for the provinces or for regions, rather than patronage appointments. And a bit of tinkering to reconsider how the "regions" are defined might be possible. Right now, perversely, Atlantic Canada is the most represented region in the Senate, with 30 seats.

I also didn't claim that the provinces held all the powers - there are certainly key taxation powers in the hands of Ottawa. But in terms of the daily lives of most Canadian citizens, health and education are the two big dossiers, and if Ottawa scales back its taxation (to meet a neo-conservative agenda), then provinces who want to can up their tax rates, if they wish.

At 9:26 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess we'll have to disagree about the need for the NDP to hold on to Quebec. It is Canada's most social-democratic province, far more left-leaning than Ontario or even BC. Yes, that's a bit of a cliché, but Nelson Wiseman wrote a series of articles back in the 1980s trying to make roughly that case.

In those areas of jurisdiction that the federal government still controls (for e.g. foreign policy) the NDP's positions are in perfect harmony with the views of the vast majority of Quebecers.

Admittedly, since the NDP's founding, it has been absent from the QC political scene for a whole variety of reasons. Now, though, it has the opportunity to recreate the pre-1982 Liberal victories. To do so, it would would need to give QCers what they've always wanted: "a sovereign Quebec within a united Canada". That means giving QC a particular place in federal structures (for e.g 24% of the seats in the House of Commons). The NDP would also have to elect a leader--for e.g. Thomas Mulcair-- who could communicate those positions to English Canadians, so that the party could maintain some support in the ROC.

But the NDP should be under no illusions: if it ever aspires to form gov't, it will have to become a Quebec-based party, with all the messy compromises that that entails.

As for Senate reform, my understanding is that any substantial changes would involve constitutional negotiations. That appears highly unrealistic at this point. Besides, having an elected Senate would completely transform our Parliamentary system, which has always been based on a less than "illegitimate" Upper House. Seems like a useless gamble to me.

It would far better if Harper told the Premiers that he wanted to abolish the Senate as a cost-cutting measure. He could then leave the door open to recreating the Senate if the Premiers ever agreed on a formula for elections and seat distribution. Sounds like a "common-sense" solution, no? Bet nobody would kick up fuss to defend the PM's power to make sleazy patronage appointments!

At 2:25 pm, Blogger Matt said...

I don't disagree that there is certainly potential for the NDP to hold on to at least part of the foothold that they've managed to secure in Quebec. But I'll be extremely surprised to see higher seat totals than those of the current Parliament, which emerged out of a perfect storm of momentum, hostility with the existing options, and love of Jack Layton. Even if they swept the province, 16 more seats does not equal a majority government, or even necessarilly a minority! All of which, to my mind, means that future NDP growth in terms of seat count will be more likely to happen in other parts of the country. If the NDP allows itself to be tagged with the "Quebec interests at the expense of other regions" label that the Conservatives will certainly attempt to pin on them, it will hurt in other potential growth regions.

Yes, the NDP will need to take steps to ensure that it is seen as reflective of concerns that resonate with the left-wing electorate in Quebec to help hold on to their 2011 gains. But advocacy of the position that, regardless of demographic shifts, Quebec's share of the House of Commons seats should remain permanently fixed will, to my mind, do more harm than good. It would be better to champion policies that would make Quebec an attractive place for immigration so that its share of the Commons seats did not slip because its population was growing or maintaining itself. That would have the added benefit of enhancing the province's economy and international image. Quebec's population, like its share of the House of Commons seats, need not necessarilly decline relative to the rest of Canada. I would prefer that the parties I support not advocate an arbitrary and politically divisive (and rep-by-pop undermining) solution to what is, to my mind, the bigger problem.

At 9:15 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How would the federal gov't help make Quebec an attractive place for immigrants? I thought QC controlled its own immigration selection.

The NDP must show that "the nation resolution actually means something". Seems to me that giving QC 24% of the seats in the HofC is about as fair to the ROC as can be. Remember the Charlottetown Accord, giving QC a 25% share in perpetuity, was supported by such great QCois nationalists as Robert Libman of the Equality Party!

If English Canada is so anti-Quebec that it would punish he NDP for such a moderate position, then perhaps the Liberals will have room to grow in the 905. Then, we might actually get a Lib-NDP coalition gov't.

In fact, that may still be the most likely outcome of our current political upheavals. The ROC is not very amenable to the NDP, whatever its position on QC.

Yet, if the NDP were to shun QC, contributing to a Bloc revival, the opposition would be splintered and a Lib-NDP coalition would be harder to form. Esp. since Daniel Paille seems much more of a hard-liner than Duceppe and would probably refuse to discretely distinguish b/w federalist parties. A 2008 scenario can probably never repeat itself.


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