As if it did not have enough trouble on its hands with Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, the Harper government has lately gone out of its way to antagonize Ontario as well. To be sure, the province's Liberal government has long been in the habit of complaining about its alleged mistreatment at the hands of the feds, pleading poverty even as it was collecting billions more in federal transfers. But this time it has a point.
The issue in the current set-to is not money but power, or strictly speaking representation. Earlier this month, the Harper government unveiled legislation, Bill C-56, that would alter the system of apportioning seats among the provinces in the House of Commons. The intent, according to a government press release, was "to restore the principle of representation by population." Note that word: restore.
The principle, fundamental to any democracy, that the voters should be represented in Parliament in proportion to their numbers, has been stretched thin over the years in Canada. Provinces, for example, are constitutionally guaranteed no fewer Members of Parliament than they have Senators -- which is why Prince Edward Island gets four seats, rather than the one or two to which it would be entitled under strict rep by pop.
But the Mulroney government made the situation much worse in 1985, with a raft of changes to the formula for allocating seats --including the addition of another "floor," guaranteeing that no province would ever have fewer seats than it had then -- whose combined effect was to prevent the increase in population in fast-growing provinces from being properly reflected in the number of seats they received in Parliament after each census. As a result, British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have grown increasingly under-represented.
Bill C-56 would correct that anomaly with regard to B.C. and Alberta -- but not Ontario. The legislation doesn't say so explicitly, of course. Rather, it says, in the elaborate euphemisms of Canadian constitutional parlance, that any growing province with a population less than that of the most populous "floor" province would receive the same number of seats, proportionate to its population, as that unnamed province. Of course, we mean Quebec. So B.C. and Alberta, being smaller than Quebec, get equal treatment. Ontario, being larger, does not.
The effect will be to give B.C. and Alberta another five and four seats, respectively, after the 2011 census, over and above what they would have received under the old formula. Ontario, too, will get more seats --but not nearly as many as its population would warrant. With about 40% of the population, Ontario will still be getting only 35% of the seats. And that under-representation will only get worse over time.
It's impossible to justify this in the name of any sort of principle. Rather, one supposes the government's thinking went as follows: B.C. and Alberta have been the hotbeds of discontent about this issue, and yet remain small enough that we can give them a few more seats without alarming Quebec too much. Fairness for Ontario, on the other hand, assuming no province could lose seats, would mean expanding the House by another 20 to 25 seats. What is more, Ontario is too big and sleepy to notice it is being shortchanged.
We shall see. The formula is so mindnumbingly complex -- the legislation goes on for several paragraphs -- that few outside government can be expected to be aware of the skullduggery concealed therein. But how much simpler, and fairer, it would be if it just said this: There shall be one seat for every 100,000 population, rounded up to the nearest whole number.
That guarantees every province or territory at least one seat. More important, it would get us closer to that bedrock democratic principle I mentioned off the top: that every vote is of equal weight, that every citizen should have equal voice in deciding who governs us.
This isn't just a matter of inter-provincial fairness, after all. There are also enormous discrepancies in population, within each province, between urban and rural seats -- to say nothing of the inequities to which our present system of counting the votes gives rise, wherein (for example) the votes of 1.6 million Bloc Quebecois voters count for nearly twice as much, in terms of seats as the votes of 2.6 million NDP voters, while the votes of 650,000 Green party voters count for nothing at all.
The unfairness, then, is not between provinces, or parties. It is between citizens. Were it to be openly suggested that some voters should have two or three votes while others have only one -- or none -- depending on which part of the country they live in or which party they voted for, there would be riots in the streets. Yet that is effectively what we have done.
Perhaps this latest bit of chicanery will be the last straw. Perhaps Ontario's howls of protest will at last shake us out of the conceit that there is some alternative in a democracy to the principle, as simple as it is fundamental, of one person, one vote.