New seats bring fairness to Commons representation

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The House of Commons adopted the Fair Representation Act on third reading Tuesday night, which sends the bill on parliamentary redistribution over to the Senate for quick adoption before the Christmas break.

The bill expands the House from 308 to 338 members, though don't ask where 30 new desks will fit in the present Commons chamber, which is bursting at the seams.

The big winner in the redistribution will be Ontario, with 15 new seats, increasing its deputation from 106 to 121 seats. Ontario, with 38 per cent of the population, will still be under-represented in the House, with 35.8 per cent of the seats, but at least that's an improvement from its current share of 34.4 per cent.

British Columbia and Alberta will each receive six new seats, bringing their representation in the House to 42 and 36 seats respectively. That gives B.C. 12 per cent and Alberta 10 per cent of the seats, which is more closely aligned to their shares of the population.

Quebec, which would have remained at 75 seats in an earlier version of the legislation, will finally receive three additional seats, and its 78 seats will correspond exactly to its 23.1 per cent of the population.

Quebec cannot now contend it is being ignored or under-represented in the new House.

The Fair Representation bill is being fast-tracked so that electoral-boundaries commissions can be appointed in each province to determine where the new seats will go.

Once the 2011 census is released in February, the commissions must be appointed within 60 days. When they have completed their work, the new 338-seat House will be contested in the next election, which has a fixed date of October 2015.

The chief justice of the province acts as chair of its electoral-boundaries commission, and the speaker of the House of Commons appoints the other two commissioners.

Drawing up a new electoral map is where the fun begins. You could call it redistribution, but historically, gerrymandering would be another word for it.

In Quebec, the three new seats should all go to the Montreal region - one to the island, one to the South Shore and one to Laval.

But the real story is in Ontario, particularly the 905-area-code suburban belt around Toronto. It now has 22 seats in the House, of which 21 are held by the Conservatives.

The five most populous ridings in the country, and nine out of the top 10, are in 905.

Every one of the top five has a bigger population than Prince Edward Island, which has four seats in the House with only 141,000 people. But since a province can never have fewer seats in the House than it has in the Senate, and with no chance of changing that without a constitutional amendment, there is no prospect of electoral reform ever coming to P.E.I. New Brunswick, with a population of only 750,000, has 10 seats in the Senate. B.C. and Alberta each have only six seats in the Senate, which is how the Senate-reform movement began in the West.

Many of the 905 seats are heavily multicultural. A report by Ontario's Mowat Centre for public-policy research, entitled Voter Equality and Other Canadian Values, notes that 64 per cent of the population of Brampton-Gore-Malton riding consists of visible minorities, while 60 per cent of Mississauga-Brampton South and 52 per cent of Mississauga-Erindale are multicultural. These are heavily south Asian ridings, targeted by the Conservatives, and in last May's federal election the campaign strategy paid off big time.

No one would be surprised if as many as 10 of the 15 new Ontario seats went to the Greater Toronto Area, with a majority of them going to 905.

In Alberta, the six new seats will be evenly divided between north and south, which is to say between the Edmonton region and the Calgary region.

In B.C., most of the six new seats will go to the lower mainland around Vancouver, with a nod to Vancouver Island and the B.C. interior.

The Liberals had another idea, which was keeping the 308-seat House and redistributing according to population, as the Americans do in redistricting their House of Representatives, which is fixed at 435 members.

But that would have reduced Quebec to 72 seats, and was a complete non-starter in Quebec.

Besides, the Liberals are the third party in a majority House. They're not setting the agenda. That's the government's job.

This bill is a carefully balanced one, and the whole a very good one. In any event, it's a done deal.

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