Canada is having a “rabbit on a skateboard” moment. The rabbit refers to the bizarre shape of the 17th Congressional District in Illinois, which has become infamous among electoral reform advocates. Illinois 17 has been gerrymandered to the point of ridiculousness to create a safe seat for the Democrats.
Canadians like to mock the excesses of the US electoral system.
But meanwhile, here at home, the bill to add seats to the House of Commons to account for the rising populations of BC, Alberta and Ontario was just killed off by defenders of the status quo in Ottawa.
The result is that some Canadians have a vote worth more than twice as much as others. To make matters worse, the people whose votes are worth the least tend to be immigrants.
This is fair?
Some numbers from the recent by-elections make the point. Winnipeg North has 51,000 voters and Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette has 53,000 voters. Each get an MP. Meanwhile, Vaughan has 121,000 voters – more than both other ridings put together – and also gets one MP.
This is not an isolated anomaly. It is baked into the logic of our system. According to Elections Canada, the populations of the four PEI ridings are less than 40,000 each. The number of voters is even smaller.
The 10 New Brunswick ridings average 73,000 in population. Quebec has 75 ridings, and theirs average about 100,000 people. Since the national average is about 110,000, this means that Quebec has about seven more MPs than strict representation by population would suggest. PEI would lose more than half of its MPs.
It’s also an awkward topic for the Yukon, because each territory is guaranteed a seat and our population is about the same as a PEI riding.
Meanwhile, our richest and fastest-growing provinces – BC, Alberta and Ontario – are under-represented.
Then there is the rural/urban split, which is a factor even within provinces. In BC, for example, our friends in Atlin vote in Skeena-Bulkley Valley, population 92,000. The suburban Vancouver ridings are mostly over 120,000. And growing fast. There is a similar phenomenon in Ontario and Alberta.
Respected University of Toronto law professor Sujit Choudhry has pointed out that visible minority Canadians are disproportionately located in these urban ridings. So the value of their votes gets hit with a double haircut: less because they live in BC, Ontario or Alberta, and less because they live in an urban riding. Professor Choudhry has developed a formula that shows, for example, that in 2001 a rural vote was worth 34 per cent more than an urban one. In BC, it was 48 per cent.
He also points out that Toronto has more people than all the maritime provinces combined, but has less than 25 MPs while Atlantic Canada has 32.
This is more subtle than “rabbit on a skateboard” gerrymandering as an abuse of democracy, but it still makes for a big impact.
MPs know it, which explains the intense behind-the-scenes battle to kill Bill C-12. This bill would have added 18 seats in Ontario, seven in BC and five in Alberta.
Shamefully, our three so-called national parties have quietly conspired to let the bill die in Parliament.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, in an unintentionally ironic quote, says the bill was “no way to run a federation.” She is calling for more consultation with the provinces, the last refuge of a Canadian politician who has lost an argument on its merits but wants to delay the inevitable.
Her Toronto constituents must be shaking their heads.
She is correct, however, that our current system is no way to run a federation. We have a rule to review ridings after every census, but unlike most other places (including the much-mocked US Congress) it is constrained by other rules. No province can have fewer seats than it had in 1986. And no province can have fewer MPs than it has senators, which is a great rule for Atlantic Canada since it ensures over-representation in both chambers.
Also, it’s probably not a good idea to have the economic engines of the country under-represented, and the regions that benefit most from tax-and-spend policies over-represented. If Quebec and Atlantic Canada don’t like representation by population, perhaps they should support an elected Senate which works pretty well in Australia and the US to ensure small states have strong voices.
The good news is that the rules have evolved over time. The number of MPs was increased in 1988, 1997 and 2004, for example.
Perhaps our MPs should put more effort into running the country well, rather than protecting their electoral privileges. Even the rabbit on the skateboard couldn’t protect Democrat Phil Hare in Illinois-17, who lost his seat in last month’s election.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.