Last week, Canada’s Conservative government introduced a bill to create 27 new electoral ridings in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. In the words of the PMO press release, “The Harper government today announced the introduction of the Fair Representation Act. This legislation will move every province towards representation by population in the House of Commons.”
Here in the Yukon, this is a cautionary turn of events. Under rep-by-pop we 30,000 souls would have our own MP in our dreams. The population of northern BC and the Yukon put together hardly equal one riding in the Greater Toronto Area. Prince Edward Island is in a similar position. Are we rural and northern Canadians spoiled voters with too much power, or do we deserve voices in Parliament that reflect our regional priorities?
If rep-by-pop had got off to a strong start in Canadian history, we would be living in a far different country today. When Upper and Lower Canada were working out the deal that would become the British North America Act, what’s now Quebec made up 59 per cent of the population. Guess who advocated for rep-by-pop and who, with the backing of London, fought for and won equal representation between the two provinces?
Rep-by-pop would change Canada as profoundly today as it would have at the outset, but fear not, Yukoners, Stephen Harper is not going to rush Canada into anything that would hurt all those Conservative rural ridings. The proposed new ridings are in areas of urban growth, and will serve to balance one urban centre with another. So far, they don’t plan to balance us rural types out of existence in the process.
But take another look at that press release. Note that it comes from the PMO, the real centre of Canadian government. Under Harper, the Conservatives have been adept at reducing the relevance of Parliament even during a minority government. The power of the PMO demotes government backbenchers to the status of nodding sausage dogs in a car window. Under a majority the opposition are at best an annoyance, who might, if provoked, ruin the cuffs of a perfectly good pair of trousers.
Note also that the Harper government has not backed away, despite widespread criticism, from calling itself the Harper government, instead of the Government of Canada, in public communiques. It’s not so much an admission as a boast that Canada has become a de facto presidential system, without the checks and balances of an independent House of Representatives. As far as rep-by-pop goes, the addition or subtraction of ridings is a lot less relevant to democratic outcomes than the concentration of power within parties, and most particularly within the party in power.
The same talk of “fairness” that drives rep-by-pop inspires proportional representation, another movement with perhaps a better chance of finessing the tightrope walk that is democracy in a vast colonial mish-mash like Canada. Various forms of PR seek to address what is called inequality among voters, the fact that one person’s vote “counts” for more than another’s.
Shoni Field, president of Fair Vote Canada, an advocacy group for PR, had this to say about the recent Yukon election: “With a phony majority in the territorial legislature, the government can do what it wants, and no one can stop them.” Field has a point about majority governments, and it’s something in our system that needs to be addressed, but in the present case, just how phony is our new government?
The Yukon Party won the recent territorial election with 40 per cent of the votes. This resulted in a majority of seats, in part because we have a multi-party system, and in part because the votes are skewed in favour of rural ridings. But is that imbalance, or necessity? What voice would Old Crow or Ross River have otherwise?
Political and demographic reality means there will, for the foreseeable future, be some skewing of power between one voter and another. Most of us in areas of lower population can see the justice in this. It’s hard to convince rural Canadians that all of the power should lie in the thin band of urban humanity along the US border. By the same token, it’s hardly phony that the new Yukon legislature reflects regional disparities.
Rep-by-pop would be a disaster for the Yukon and for large parts of Canada. PR offers more hope, but will it take regional disparities into account, or will voting become so “fair” that the great and growing urban population rules us all from afar?
In the meantime, we elect our leaders through the current system, with all its warts and blemishes. It concentrates power in the premier’s office in an unfortunate way, but please, after we’ve just gone to all the trouble and expense of a general election, let’s not dismiss the results as “phony.”
It’s too depressing.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.