Evidence of meeting #11 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was seats.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Andrew Sancton  Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Western Ontario, As an Individual
  • Michael Pal  Fellow, Mowat Centre, University of Toronto - School of Public Policy and Governance
  • Nelson Wiseman  Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, As an Individual
  • Kenneth Carty  Professor of Political Science, University of British Columbia
  • Ned Franks  Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Studies, Queen's University, As an Individual
  • Louis Massicotte  Professor, Department of Political Science, Laval University, As an Individual

11 a.m.


The Chair Joe Preston

I call the meeting to order. We are here today in public. Pursuant to the order of reference of Thursday, November 3, 2011, we are considering Bill C-20, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act.

We have three witnesses in our first hour today, and we'll have three witnesses in our second hour, also.

Here this morning we have Andrew Sancton, from the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario. He's a good Londoner. He's also a former electoral boundaries commissioner. If we have any questions on that, it may be suitable to ask them today.

We have Nelson Wiseman here today from the University of Toronto. It's good to have you with us. Also we have Michael Pal, from the Mowat Centre.

We're going to have them each give a bit of an opening statement, if they have one, and then we'll go to rounds of questioning.

Mr. Sancton, would you like to go first?

11 a.m.

Dr. Andrew Sancton Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Western Ontario, As an Individual

Sure, Mr. Chair.

11 a.m.


The Chair Joe Preston

Go ahead. The floor is yours.

11 a.m.

Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Western Ontario, As an Individual

Dr. Andrew Sancton

It is a pleasure to be here, and as the chair said, I've served on electoral boundaries commissions in Ontario on three separate occasions and I have testified about this kind of redistribution issue on three or four other occasions in the past. Most recently, I wrote a paper on the principle of representation by population in Canadian federal politics for the Mowat Centre in 2010.

The first point I want to emphasize is that Bill C-20 amends the Constitution of Canada. The Constitution provides that Parliament, acting alone, can amend the formula for allocating House of Commons seats among the provinces, providing that it does not violate “the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces” and providing that no province is ever allocated fewer MPs than senators. There are no other restrictions on what Parliament can enact with respect to this subject.

I applaud the government for proposing to amend the formula so as to improve the relative representation of Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta. In my view, lack of such action would have left the existing formula open to constitutional challenge on the grounds that it was increasingly failing to reflect “the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces”. I also applaud the government for proposing that no province that is over-represented by the current formula should become underrepresented as a result of the operation of any of the new arrangements.

But I cannot support any formula that has the effect of adding significantly more MPs than we already have. The government, of course, is absolutely right in pointing out that if we want to treat the fast-growing provinces fairly, and if we do not significantly add to the total number of MPs, the effect would be to remove MPs from some provinces.

By my calculations, since Confederation there have been 22 instances of individual provinces losing members of Parliament as a result of redistributions of seats following decennial censuses. It happens regularly within the constituent units of other federations, most notably in the United States, where the size of the House of Representatives is held constant and the size of each state’s delegation is adjusted up or down every 10 years. The U.S. Constitution does not allow Congress to act alone and do what the government is proposing that Parliament do by enacting Bill C-20.

The so-called grandfather clause, which prevents provinces from losing seats from one redistribution to another, or prevents their seats from falling below what they were in 1985, was enacted by Parliament alone in 1985. It can just as easily be removed by Parliament acting alone in 2011. In fact, that is exactly what I urge you to do.

If Parliament once again makes it possible for provinces to lose seats, then fast-growing provinces can be treated more fairly without significantly expanding the House of Commons—or, indeed, without expanding it at all. By enacting the government’s proposed provision that no currently over-represented province can become underrepresented, you will ensure that no small or slow-growing province is treated unfairly. That's why I support that provision. Some might see it as an advantage that this provision could possibly apply to provinces other than just Quebec, and I'm thinking particularly here of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

As I've followed this debate so far, I believe there has been far too much emphasis on exactly which provinces are getting exactly how many more seats. The key issue is the fairness of the formula itself and how it affects the relative representation of each of the provinces in relation to the others. Except for incumbent and aspiring MPs, I believe the absolute number of seats in a particular province is quite irrelevant.

The issue that the rest of us are concerned about is the relative representational strength of provinces in relation to their respective shares of the total population. I am sure everyone here realizes that floor for the number of Senate seats has the effect of protecting seats in the small provinces of Atlantic Canada, but not in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Under my preferred approach, I'm the first to admit that these two provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, would lose relatively more seats than the Atlantic provinces, and perhaps there is a need for some form of cushioning mechanism.

The problem, of course, is that each time exceptional mechanisms are added, the fast-growing provinces lose in relative terms. The whole object of this enterprise is to begin once again to treat them fairly. My preferred option, in the form of a cushion or a floor, would be to enact a rule that we've had before, that no province can have fewer MPs than a province with a smaller population.

I would like to end my presentation with a personal anecdote relating to my experience on electoral boundaries commissions. The first time I was on one was in the 1980s. I wrote my first academic articles on this subject in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, I was appointed by the then-Speaker of the House of Commons to be one of three members of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario.

Under the terms of the amalgam formula enacted in 1974, Ontario was to receive 10 more seats and the House of Commons was to expand from 282 members to 310 members. We commissioners did what we were supposed to do: We drew our proposed maps, which of necessity led to many significant boundary changes—and I emphasize that. When you have a lot more seats, you're going to change a lot more boundaries. You don't just plop the seats in a neat package; it changes everything. Anyway, we did that and we proceeded to hold public hearings in accordance with the act.

It's not an exaggeration to say that we were met with a torrent of abuse. “Why all of these changes? Why do we have more MPs”, people asked. The wise and kindly judge who chaired our commission, who died only recently, tried to explain that this was all for Ontario’s benefit. Our audiences were not convinced. They knew rightly and instinctively that enlarging the House of Commons to accommodate Ontario’s fast growth could not possibly be the only way of proceeding.

The government of Prime Minister Mulroney then brought in legislation that abolished our commission and created a new formula. That formula is the same one that contained the grandfather clause, and has had the effect over time of increasing the underrepresentation of fast-growing provinces.

This is the formula that Bill C-20 is designed to change but, of course, it's not getting rid of the grandfather clause. My fear is that Bill C-20 is repeating a crucial mistake from the past. Canadians do want fair and proportionate representation. Certainly, Ontarians do, and I fully support that. But people don't want more MPs. Every time I tell people what I'm doing today, that's what they tell me, “We don't want more MPs.” You might not feel the full effect of the anger now, but if this bill is enacted in its current form, I believe you will increasingly feel that anger as the prospect of many more additional MPs becomes real.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

11:10 a.m.


The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you very much.

Mr. Pal, please go ahead.

11:10 a.m.

Michael Pal Fellow, Mowat Centre, University of Toronto - School of Public Policy and Governance

Thank you very much for having me here today.

Merci de m'avoir invité.

I'm going to talk about two main things in my brief remarks here: first, about the positive steps forward that I believe Bill C-20 is taking, and second, to raise a couple of possible amendments or other reforms that Bill C-20 does not fully address, in order to further the value of representation by population.

To get to the areas where I believe Bill C-20 moves forward, it makes four key reforms. The first is that it removes the artificial cap on the size of the House of Commons. The current redistribution formula divides the population of each province by 279. The practical effect of the 279 formula means that not enough seats are added to the fast-growing provinces, those being Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. By removing that cap, Bill C-20 raises the possibility that representation by population will be adhered to much more closely than it currently is.

The second positive move forward by Bill C-20 is that it adds seats to exactly those provinces that have fast-growing populations. Alberta would receive six seats, Ontario fifteen, and British Columbia six. Professor Sancton spoke a little about provincial representation. I think the real issue is actually the representation of voters. It's voter equality that matters. It's not the absolute number of seats going to each province, it's what the voting power of an individual Canadian citizen is. Currently, citizens in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia are underrepresented. That has been the case for decades. Population growth in those provinces is concentrated not province-wide, but in the urban and suburban areas in those provinces. That has been known for quite a long time.

The changing demographic fact is that population growth is now driven by immigration. Immigrants, who are overwhelmingly visible minorities, choose to settle in the largest urban areas in those three provinces—for example, in the 905 district around Toronto, in Greater Vancouver, or in Calgary and Edmonton. What we're really talking about is who is the underrepresented voter. That underrepresented voter is increasingly a new Canadian who lives in a suburb and, increasingly, he or she is a visible minority. By adding seats to the fast-growing provinces, Bill C-20 is a positive move because it raises equality for those voters. It raises their voting weight.

The third positive move of Bill C-20 is that it treats Ontario equally with the other fast-growing provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. As I believe the committee will know, earlier versions of the legislation applied a specific formula that didn't allow Ontario's seat complement to grow as fast as it allowed Alberta's and British Columbia's. This bill treats those three provinces equally, and I think that's a very positive move.

The fourth issue is that adding seats to the House of Commons had the unintentional effect of diluting Quebec's proportionate representation. This bill would add three seats to Quebec. I think that's a good development, because it means that the proportion of seats Quebec has in the House will not fall below its proportion in the general population.

Those are the four positive moves.

What else does Bill C-20 need to address to really deal with representation by population? Bill C-20 deals with interprovincial inequalities, such as the case with a farmer in Ontario who has less voting weight than a farmer in Manitoba or Saskatchewan. Bill C-20 gets to that problem. What Bill C-20 does not address is voting power within provinces. Within each province, suburban and urban voters have much lower voting power than voters generally in rural areas, and you also see discrepancies between regions.

Once these seats are allocated to each province, as you know, it's independent, non-partisan electoral boundary commissions that decide on the actual boundaries. I think most academics are in agreement that the boundary commission process works very well, but the problem lies at the legislative level.

The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act allows commissions to deviate by 25% above or below the average population in a province. Then in extraordinary circumstances—which are undefined—they can even go beyond that. If you have a province with an average riding population of 100,000 people, the commission can deviate as low as 75,000 or as high as 125,000 people, not even using the exceptional circumstances clause. That's actually quite a wide deviation, which makes federal districts an outlier both domestically and internationally.

Recently, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland have all moved to much lower variances. They now allow between 5% and 10% as the number, with exemptions for those ridings where it's just geographically unmanageable to insist on representation by population. But those exceptions tend to be quite small in number.

As Professor Sancton said, the U.S. insists on absolute voter equality. I hope it will also be of interest to the committee that the United Kingdom has legislation before it that would reduce the variance to 5% in the U.K., with some exemptions.

At the Mowat Centre, we suggest that this bill should be amended to allow only a 5% to 10% variance, with some exemptions for ridings such as Labrador. Labrador is separated from the rest of Newfoundland by water. It only has 25,000 or 30,000 people, and it doesn't make sense to connect that riding with another riding in Newfoundland. That's the kind of riding where an exemption would be valid.

The last issue that I just wanted to raise is that while this bill gets rid of the 279 baseline for the size of the House, future growth of the House is still limited. The bill uses 111,161 people as the electoral quotient for the 2011 redistribution, and that moves us quite close to representation by population—although Ontario is still slightly underrepresented. But the formula contained in rule 6 of the bill increases that 111,000 number by the average rate of provincial population growth. In practice what that means is that the number of 111,000 will increase and will be something like 120,000, if Statistics Canada's medium-range population projections turn out to be accurate. On my reading of what those numbers will mean, the average riding size in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia—not for this redistribution of 2011, but the next one in 2021—will continue to grow to levels that I believe Parliament should consider problematic.

Under the Bill C-20 formula, the average riding in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia would have about 122,000 people, whereas the average riding in the rest of Canada would have about 82,000 people—and those are just the averages. There are extremes that obviously go quite a bit beyond that. So what we propose as a preferable formula is to keep 111,161 as the permanent electoral quotient going forward.

Now, the consequence of this will be that more seats are added to the House of Commons. Professor Sancton has raised some valid concerns about that. But if what we're really trying to do is to achieve representation by population, then an amendment to the formula will help us to achieve that.

Those are my comments.

Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to your questions.

11:15 a.m.


The Chair Joe Preston

Professor Wiseman, your comments, please, and then we'll go to questions.

11:15 a.m.

Dr. Nelson Wiseman Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, As an Individual

Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thank you for inviting me, and I apologize for my lack of facility in French.

I've read the debate at second reading on November 2. I'm thankful to Michelle, the clerk, for connecting me with the audiocast of your hearings of last week, to which I listened; and I also found very helpful a research piece by the Library of Parliament, prepared last year in April, on Bill C-12, the forerunner to this act.

Now this issue of redistribution, of course, is dealt with in the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1915; but we've also had legislative tinkering, not only in 1985 with the grandfather clause, but in the 1940s, in 1946, in 1951, and in 1974. I want to echo a number of things Michael said, but my perspective is somewhat more critical.

I think it's unfortunate that this whole issue of redistribution is now subject to partisan bickering and has become unnecessarily politicized. I don't think we should be engaging in this exercise every decade or two. I think what we need is a fixed number of seats in the House of Commons, and I want to remind you that the House of Commons is the people's house. It's not the provinces' house—that's the Senate. MPs work very hard, as you do, primarily for your constituents. That's what you report in surveys. And MPs don't vote on the basis of what province they come from; you vote overwhelmingly on partisan lines.

Bill Casey found that out very powerfully. He felt he was voting for his province and he paid for it. When Newfoundland MPs voted for their province, I noticed their leader was castigated for not imposing discipline.

Now the minister and others have referred to Canadians' expectations of their votes being equal, but the real inequality, as Michael Pal has pointed out, is between rural and urban areas. I've heard Brampton West mentioned in the hearings by the member for Brampton West, and comparing that constituency to a rural constituency in Saskatchewan, it seems to me, is not as relevant as comparing it to a rural constituency in Ontario. I would also point out that if you go back to at least the 1960s, you will always find that the largest constituency in Canada is in the Peel region, which is where Brampton West is. So this really isn't anything new.

My own position is concurrent with the position of the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, when he was a member of this committee in 1994-95, when he said, “...there is no rationale for our constituencies to have only a fraction of the population common to electoral districts in other democracies.”

He suggested a maximum of 273 seats. I think the maximum size could be around 260. The House of Commons operated quite well when we had that number for several decades. Under the current Prime Minister's proposal, eight provinces would have lost seats.

I want to point out that every single province in Canada, except Newfoundland, Alberta, and British Columbia, has lost seats in some redistributions. And here, I'm including Quebec. Quebec had 75 seats from 1953 through 1965, and then from 1968 through the 1974 elections, it only had 74 seats. Saskatchewan used to have the third-largest contingent in the House of Commons. I think that lasted for over 30 years. Now it has the smallest contingent, as we know, outside of the Atlantic provinces, along with Manitoba. Ontario as well lost seats during the First World War. I think we're overly concerned here about provincial representation.

I want to emphasize that MPs are first and foremost speaking for the provinces or their premiers, their governments, or their legislatures. This is a matter under federal jurisdiction and I don't think we need input from the provinces. They can provide it, but we don't need to consult with the provinces—as has been asserted by various speakers in the debate—if we want to reduce the number of seats. It doesn't involve consulting the provinces, as Professor Sancton pointed out, nor do we have to gain their unanimous support, which I think was also an erroneous statement made during the debate.

Now the minister, when he appeared last week, indicated that the provinces indeed were not consulted on the construction of this bill. The provinces would only need to be consulted, as I think you know, on changes to the Senate's numbers. The idea of undoing the grandfather clause of 1985 requires a constitutional amendment. According to the National Post, that involves the participation of the provinces. This is simply erroneous, and it's something that's being perpetuated. The clause, I believe, could and should be repealed by this House of Commons, because without doing so, we're guaranteeing the permanent expansion of the House of Commons in perpetuity.

At second reading in the debate, the parliamentary secretary, Mr. Lukiwski, said, and I'm quoting him, that “it is a fundamental principle of our democratic process, that each Canadian's vote should have the same weight”. But as Michael Pal points out, Parliament does not subscribe to this principle, because its legislation permits a 25% variation above and below provincial average size, when you take into account the seats allowed to each province. The Supreme Court has upheld this variation. I have no problem with it, although like Michael, I would prefer that it be narrowed, perhaps to 10% or possibly 15%.

Our jurisprudence in Canada has been quite different. In the United States, they've stuck closely to the principle of the right to an equal vote. That has not been the Canadian tradition. In Canada, the courts have actually focused on the equal right to vote, and thus the franchise has been expanded to many who weren't eligible before, such as judges, those living abroad, prisoners, and some others, including returning officers.

I don't think we can have a perpetually increasing and large House of Commons. I would note that reducing the size of the House of Commons has been done in the past. The number of seats was reduced from 265 to 264 after 1965, and it stayed that way until 1979.

My criteria aren't primarily the cost savings. The savings and costs are marginal when you look at a budget that's approaching $300 billion. I'm actually hopeful that a smaller House could perhaps engage in more civil exchanges and that it would make for more camaraderie and more familiarity among fewer members. One of the paradoxes right now is that we're increasing the size of the House of Commons, but we're using time allocation more and we're actually giving fewer MPs the opportunity to speak in the House of Commons. To me, that seems to be a contradiction.

I heard the concern of one MP that if the size of the House were reduced, we would have the anomalous situation of a maritime province having ten MPs--such as New Brunswick or Nova Scotia--and Manitoba and Saskatchewan only six. My own reading of it is that I don't believe this could happen, because there's a provision in the law, according to the Library of Parliament's legislative summary, that no province may have fewer seats than a province with a smaller population.

I would propose a floor of ten seats for every province, except P.E.I. and Newfoundland, and I would distribute the rest of the seats proportionately. Of course, it would still entail slight underrepresentation for all the other provinces, but we're dealing here with very small percentages. In many cases, we're quibbling over fractions of a single percent, which would get wiped out, in any event, when we have the rounding.

There's the issue of Quebec, which is sensitive.

11:25 a.m.


The Chair Joe Preston

I'd like you to wrap it up, please.

11:25 a.m.

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, As an Individual

Dr. Nelson Wiseman

Okay, let me make a political comment.

I'm a resident of Ontario. In the 1990s, the Government of Ontario introduced a bill called the Fewer Politicians Act. Many of the senior cabinet ministers in that government are now senior cabinet ministers in the federal cabinet. I notice that this bill is called the Fair Representation Act. That bill wasn't called the Unfair Representation Act, nor is this bill called the More Politicians Act.

I don't see a great demand. I heard a statement by the minister that this was a commitment made during the election. I don't recall hearing one candidate in the election, or the Prime Minister, nor did I see a single piece of literature distributed to anybody's house, saying “If you elect us and my party, we are going to increase the size of the House of Commons”.

Thank you.

11:25 a.m.


The Chair Joe Preston

Thank you very much, professor.

I'd like to go to a five-minute round, starting with Mr. Lukiwski, please.

November 22nd, 2011 / 11:25 a.m.


Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you all, professors, for being here.

On this one question I have several comments to make, but my first question would be to Professor Sancton, and perhaps a similar question to Professor Wiseman, because both of you are taking the same approach inasmuch as you're suggesting that we need fewer rather than more members of Parliament. But have either one of you consulted with any of the provinces that might be affected under your suggestions, particularly the province of Manitoba or Saskatchewan?

Professor Sancton?

11:25 a.m.

Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Western Ontario, As an Individual

11:25 a.m.


Tom Lukiwski Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Professor Wiseman?

11:25 a.m.

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, As an Individual

Dr. Nelson Wiseman

I haven't consulted with the governments, but I am a Manitoban. I grew up in Manitoba, and I was there when the seats were reduced and it wasn't an issue, because I sensed, as I think other Manitobans did, that the important point wasn't how many seats you had, but the proportionality.

I think that's how Saskatchewanians responded. They lost seats more dramatically than other province in Confederation. They went from 21 seats to 13 seats. I wrote my thesis on prairie politics, and I never encountered this as an issue at any time in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.