Larger Commons could help Conservatives, Liberals

Big loser might be the Bloc because of Quebec's declining influence

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 7, 2010

With the proposed addition of 30 new seats to the House of Commons, increasing its membership from 308 to 338, the magic number for a majority government will move to 170.

In an era of minority Houses, that seems like a steep hill for either of the two government parties, the Conservatives or Liberals, to climb.

But not necessarily when you look at the distribution of the new seats - 18 to Ontario, bringing it from 106 to 124, seven to British Columbia, raising its seat total from 36 to 43, and five to Alberta, increasing its representation from 28 to 33 ridings.

That's it, that's all. No new seats for Quebec, which is guaranteed its current representation of 75 seats, which also serves as the baseline for the arithmetic of redistribution.

Naturally, Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc are unhappy with this, but the incontrovertible fact is that Quebec's share of the Canadian population is in incremental decline, and so is its share of seats in the House. It's called rep by pop. Is there a problem with that?

Apparently so, in that Quebec, for the first time since Confederation, might actually be under-represented in the House. The University of Western Ontario's Andrew Sancton crunched the numbers and told the Globe and Mail: "Under today's formula, Quebec will have 23.1 per cent of the population but only 22.1 per cent of the seats."

The Harper government will have to fix that by giving Quebec an extra seat or two to bring its number of seats into balance with its share of the population. Otherwise, the Quebec members of Harper's own caucus will be unable to support it - they cannot vote against the interests of their own province.

The redistribution bill, introduced at the Easter recess last Thursday, won't be adopted until next year, and wouldn't take effect until 2012, by which time we'll probably have had another election under the current distribution, probably resulting in another minority government. This is what happens in a four-party House. Moreover, the bill won't reflect population shifts in the 2011 census, which will only increase the trend of growth in the two westernmost provinces.

But anything that reflects the population more accurately, increases the possibility of a majority government, and marginalizes the role of the Bloc, is not a bad thing.

Both government parties stand to gain from the redistribution and so, at the margins, does the NDP, which could pick up seats in the Lower Mainland of B.C. around Vancouver.

For the Conservatives, the new seat model is right in their sweet spot; for the Liberals, B.C. and Ontario are traditional growth markets. Only the Bloc is the loser here.

To look at the electoral map, as party war rooms do, by area code: most of the new Ontario seats will be in the 905 suburbs around Toronto, and the 519 region of southern Ontario, with a touch of 613 around Ottawa. These are all good markets for the Tories, and reasonably promising for the Liberals any time they happen to be growing their brand.

In B.C., most of the population growth is on Vancouver Island (250) and the Lower Mainland (604), where all three parties can be competitive at any time. As for Alberta (403), just colour it Tory blue.

But even then, it would fairly difficult for either one of the major parties to reach the magic number of 170 without increasing their support in Quebec. With 145 seats in the present House, the Conservatives are only 10 short of a majority. They would need to win 25 of the 30 new seats to reach majority territory without additional support from Quebec, where they now have 11 seats. It can be done, but only by sweeping the new seats in Alberta, and virtually running the table in Ontario and B.C.

As for Quebec being under-represented in the House, it has historically been over-represented. In the 1988 election for a 295-seat House, Quebec's 75 seats were slightly more than its 25 per cent share of the population. Its current share of the 308-seat House precisely matches Sancton's calculation on its share of the population - 23.1 per cent.

It's generally forgotten now that one of the provisions of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, touted by Brian Mulroney as a historic gain for Quebec, was a provision that it would have given it 25 per cent of the seats in the House in perpetuity. Quebec, and most of the country, voted against it in a referendum.

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