There's lamentation in the countryside because of a new plan to redraw the electoral map of Quebec.
The proposal, from a commission set up to study the subject, would add three new ridings in the off-island Montreal suburbs - one on the South Shore, one in Laval and one northeast of the city in the Laurentides-Lanaudière area.
The changes reflect population evolution since the last time the map was drawn. A higher proportion of Quebecers now live in the Montreal metropolitan area, which therefore deserves a higher proportion of the 125 seats in the National Assembly.
The change would mean fewer MNAs for rural ridings in low-growth or declining-population regions - in eastern Quebec, mainly. MNAs there would each represent more people than at present, spread out over a wider area. Fortunately this is not today the hardship it was in the days of horse-and-buggy travel and telegraph communication.
Nobody can - or at least nobody should - try to deny the basic justice of one-person-one-vote, which after all is the bedrock of democratic theory: an equal voice for all.
But mere logic rarely prevents special pleading, and the rural MNAs whose ridings are to vanish or expand in area are promising to resist this proposed change. Under the commission's suggested redrawing of electoral boundaries, revealed in Quebec City last week, the Gaspé peninsula, for example, will lose one riding, dropping from four to three. "I'll tell you one thing," said Pascal Bérubé, MNA for the riding of Matane there, "a battle is starting today."
If so, it's a battle he deserves to lose. But it is by no means certain that democracy will triumph. Every party has rural fiefdoms to defend. Pathetically, the Liberal minister of urban affairs Nathalie Normandeau, also a Gaspé MNA, has vowed to fight for her riding when she should be speaking up for the province's metropolitan interests.
It's easy to understand that rural people are unhappy to lose influence, and that their politicians are eager to defend their districts' privileged status. Oddly, though, we heard less fuss during the recent campaign - now fortunately scrapped - to sell us on proportional representation, which would have deprived rural people of direct representation more dramatically than simple redistricting will do.
The truth is that even the proposed reforms don't go far enough in respecting the vital principle of equal electoral power.
Quebec cavalierly and arbitrarily says that each riding can vary from the ideal average population of just over 45,000 by as much as 25 per cent, a huge gap that permits variances by which one riding can have over 56,000 voters and another under 34,000. But at present, 13 ridings are below 34,000 and another 17 are below 40,000. Meanwhile, 40 ridings are over 50,000. Something has got to give.
Fiddling with the borders of many ridings, as proposed, would improve this somewhat, but would leave the Quebec electorate still painfully far from the ideal.
Note that federal riding boundaries are much more fairly drawn: After the 2001 census, Quebec's federal riding map was redrawn so that 71 of the 75 ridings fell within just five per cent of the 96,500 average population. The exceptions are special cases involving isolated regions and populations.
If Ottawa can do it, why can't Quebec? Tolerance for huge variations amounts to systematic pandering to rural interests, at the expense of the cities which are the engines of growth and change for the whole society. It's time for rededication to the basic principle that every vote should count equally.
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