Friday, May 18, 2007

George Brown, Dalton McGuinty and Rep-by-Pop

Why is Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty so upset about Peter Van Loan's proposed federal bill to alter the number of seats that each provinces has in the House of Commons - a formula which would create 22 new seats by 2014, with Ontario receiving 10 new seats, BC 7, and Alberta 5?

It's quite simple really. One of the main reasons why George Brown, editor of The Globe and leader of the Clear Grit faction in the parliament of the United Province of Canada, was a champion of the Confederation project is that he wanted to bring representation by population to the legislature. He was tired of a legislature in which Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) had equal numbers of seats, despite a significantly higher population in Upper Canada. The House of Commons established at Confederation was supposed to meet that demand, with regional representation established through the Senate.

The problem is that the principle of Representation by Population has been systemically undermined, usually to the detriment of Ontario, Alberta and BC. A 1915 constitutional amendment established the rule that a province could not have fewer MPs than it has Senators (hence PEI's 4 MPs and New Brunswick's 10), and a 1974 amendment created a grandfather clause under which a province could not lose MPs under parliamentary redistribution, it could only gain new ones. Had the 1992 Charlottetown Accord passed, Quebec would have been permanently guaranteed 25% of the seats of the House of Commons.

Currently, only three provinces have a higher average population per House of Commons seat than the national average (106,267) [for the sake of argument, my numbers are based on the Statistics Canada population estimates for October 2006]: Ontario (120,017), Alberta (131,287) and British Columbia (120,206).

I recognize that the Conservative bill's seat distributions are designed to take population growth by 2014 into account. It is nevertheless interesting to look at what happens if those 22 seats were to be immediately added, creating a House with 330 seats, and an average population of 99,182 people per riding. Four provinces would be over the national average (albeit marginally in two cases): BC (100,636), Quebec (102,255), Ontario (109,670) and Alberta (110,111). By 2014, this is likely to be skewed even more against Alberta, in light of that province's high population growth. But Ontario is still definitely up there in terms of underrepresentation.

McGuinty's position is even more understandable if you apply the national average to each province and see how many more seats they should have in a 330 seat House of Commons based on rep-by-pop. Instead of the 116 seats being promised to Ontario, it would have 128. Alberta would have 34 instead of 31, and Quebec (!) would have 77 instead of 75. Every other province, with the exception of BC, would lose seats. Of course, the 1915 constitutional amendment prevents this, but it gives you a much better sense of why there is such discontent.

Van Loan's bill is grossly inadequate as a form of parliamentary reform. While these provinces should have more seats in the House of Commons, the bill doesn't go far enough towards a truly equitable treatment. Moreover, there are other key elements of democratic reform which need to be addressed.

[Note: Please feel free to double-check my math - I'm a historian, not a statistician!]

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At 5:34 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, it would seem the solution would be to increase the number of seats to more than 330 in order to bring everything back in balance. I'll reserve comment on Québec's "concerns" about how this seems to be a Conservative ploy to reduce their power in Ottawa, for the truth is that no single province should be drastically advantaged or disadvantaged.

At 1:58 am, Blogger Unknown said...

Well said in your blog. You correctly outlined an important precedent in our political system (rep by pop, that every riding should be of equal population size). You also outline an important democratic issue for representative government in Canada. Check out for more info on George Brown.


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