Democratic fairness is a difficult ideal

La minorisation politique du Québec au Canada

Very few problems are solved by the addition of more politicians. But when Canada's regional demographics bump up against the inflexible realities of entrenched old political deals, no better solution presents itself.
So it makes sense, on balance, to increase yet again the size of the House of Commons, from the current 308 members to a new total of 330. That's the government proposal introduced earlier this month, which would not likely take effect until 2014.
The problem is simply stated: Canada's population is growing, though some areas are gaining population much more quickly than others. Every now and then, the bedrock democratic principle of "one person, one vote" mandates that the map of electoral districts be redrawn to reflect these changes. So far so good.

But some of the British colonies that confederated in 1867 drove hard bargains, then and since. So the constitution provides certain vanadium-clad protections: Prince Edward Island, population 139,000, must always send four members to Parliament. Quebec can never have fewer than 75.
But if certain provinces - British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, say - gain population much faster than others, at some point representation by population runs afoul of the rules. So today Quebec, population 7.68 million, has 75 MPs while Alberta and B.C., combined population 7.7 million, today have only 64. Who can blame westerners for complaining about this?
The solution to such demographic evolution has been to crowd more MPs into the chamber: from 265 when Pierre Trudeau was PM to 308 today and now all the way to 330.
This new increase will cost a lot of money. Each MP is paid $150,800 per year. Add in their secretaries, aides, researchers, riding offices, plane tickets, premiums for special tasks, Internet connections, phone bills, office machines, junkets, subsidized newsletters to the voters, and gold-plated pensions, and soon you're talking real money.
We hasten to add some members of Parliament, in all parties, are worth every penny: industrious, thoughtful, fair-minded, and reasonable. Others, however ...
The conventional wisdom in political circles is that there would be nothing much to gain, and quite a lot to lose, by "reopening" the constitution in search of an elegant solution to the representation issue.
This is, unlike some conventional wisdom, precisely correct. After the patriation dramatics, the Meech Lake failure and the Charlottetown fiasco, there is no appetite for again lifting the lid of the constitutional worm-can, especially since in our current climate, every interest group from anarchists to vegans would be demanding constitutional "recognition" of some from or other. (Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with being a vegan anarchist.)
So in practice we are surely stuck with expanding the chamber. But even then, the arguments continue. Under the formula the Conservative government has proposed, B.C. and Alberta would move briskly toward their mathematically fair share of Commons seats, but Ontario would, if the current population projections are correct, be somewhat short-changed.
And Quebec, now very slightly over-represented, would keep the same number of seats, 75, but would then be a little under-represented. While the National Assembly was serenely indifferent to Quebec's over-representation, its members rose up as one to denounce the shocking, nightmarish, unbearable scandal of having 23.87 per cent of Canada's population (as per the 2006 census) but only 22.7 per cent of the planned 330 Commons seats.
That was particularly absurd given Quebec's careless habit of letting National Assembly districts vary by more than 25 per cent in population. Electoral fairness really should begin at home.
Ontario, it must be admitted, has a more legitimate complaint: Under the government plan, Ontario would have 116 seats or roughly 35 per cent of the whole House, while it is expected to have 39 per cent of the country's population. Given that, it's strange to hear the minister in charge, Peter Van Loan, talking about how the reform is based in "fairness."

One person one vote should be fundamental to democracy. The Ontario government is now talking about going to court to stop the government plan; that might be a legal long-shot but it's perfectly reasonable at the level of common sense. The government should go back to its drawing board and work out a better allocation of seats.

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