Minister of State (Democratic Reform)
moved that Bill C-20, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to begin the last stage of debate today on the government's Bill C-20, the fair representation act. Now that we have had the benefit of second reading debate and committee review, the value of this bill has become even more clear. There is no question that Bill C-20 represents the most practical and fair approach to improving representation in the House of Commons.
This bill would address a series of important points for Canadians. Most importantly, it would address the serious and increasing under-representation of our fastest growing provinces: Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. This under-representation means a number of things. It means Canadians in these three provinces are not represented properly in terms of number of members of Parliament. It means that the votes of citizens living in each of these three provinces do not have nearly the same weight as the votes of citizens living in the other seven provinces.
Certainly, we must strike a balance within our constitutional framework between voter equality and effective representation across the country. The principle of voter equality and representation by population is an important one. Many Canadians would agree it is the single most important principle. That is why we need to ensure we have a seat allocation formula that, to the greatest extent possible, provides equal weight to every Canadian's vote. I believe this is the fair thing to do and many Canadians would agree with that.
The seat allocation formula instituted in 1985 does not provide anywhere near the equality of vote that we need. We must change it. Not only is the current formula not as fair as it should be to all provinces and Canadians, but it is also increasingly unfair to Canadians in the three fastest growing provinces, which also happen to be three of the four largest provinces. This problem is significant now and is only going to get worse if we continue with the status quo.
Over 60% of Canadians live in these three provinces and so more than 60% of Canadians are under-represented in the House. To me, to many of my colleagues here, to my constituents and to our government, this is unacceptable. Therefore, we are addressing this problem.
We are keeping our promises to Canadians and those promises are worth repeating. In the last campaign, we made three distinct promises on House of Commons representation to Canadians. First, we would increase the number of seats now and in the future to better reflect population growth in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta. Second, we would protect the number of seats for smaller provinces. Third, we would protect the representation of Quebec according to population. We are delivering on each of those promises with this bill. We have promised to ensure that any update to the formula would be fair for all Canadians and all provinces, and we are doing just that.
The opposition has brought forth alternatives, but those alternatives would not keep our promises to Canadians. Each proposal has numerous flaws. We disagree with the opposition's approach. We promised specific things to Canadians on this issue and we are going to deliver on our promises. We are going to deliver a principled, reasonable and fair bill for all Canadians.
I would like to address the proposals from the NDP and the Liberals. Their proposals compromise the democratic representation of some Canadians in pursuit of political statements. This is something we are not doing. The NDP has proposed a bill that would add an element to our seat allocation formula that would violate the constitutional principle of proportional representation. It would guarantee a province a fixed percentage of seats in the House regardless of its share of the population. This would not be in keeping with our goal of moving all provinces closer to representation by population.
The NDP proposal would introduce a new factor that would cause further under-representation of the fastest growing provinces, the very provinces that we need to treat more fairly. Furthermore, to alter the principle of proportional representation would take a constitutional amendment that requires the consent of the provinces through the 7/50 amending formula. This change proposed by the NDP is not something this House and our Parliament can do on its own. From that perspective, this proposal is unconstitutional without that element of provincial consent.
We have seen that the NDP is more than happy to put a political statement in one province ahead of fair representation for all Canadians. What is more, the NDP cannot tell Canadians just how many extra seats it plans to provide. Canadians do not know what to expect from the NDP. It uses out-of-date numbers and cannot give Canadians any certainty on seat numbers.
We have been clear with Canadians. Canadians know exactly what to expect from our bill and our government. We made sure to use the most accurate numbers we have, and we made sure Canadians would know exactly what to expect from their government.
The Liberals present a proposal that would be a recipe for provincial anger and conflict. It would go directly against our second promise to Canadians, that we would protect the seat counts for smaller, slower growing provinces. This point was made eloquently by my colleague from Wellington—Halton Hills last Tuesday afternoon, and I think he is correct.
The Liberals' proposal would take seats away from the smaller, slower growing provinces, and give those seats to the larger, faster growing provinces. Simply shuffling the deck is not as easy as it sounds. It may be the practice in some other countries, as some colleagues have correctly pointed out, but it has not been the practice here in our country.
The Liberal proposal would lead to seat losses for the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Nine seats would be lost by those provinces.
Despite the challenges put forward by the Liberal members from Saint-Laurent—Cartierville and Winnipeg North, I do not think that the people in the governments of those five provinces would happily endorse the proposal.
We make no apologies for addressing the significant and increasing under-representation of ordinary Canadians. Our bill does that, just as we promised to do. We also believe, and make no apologies for believing, that this problem should not be fixed by inflicting seat losses on other provinces. Just as we would ensure that no province could move from being overrepresented to being under-represented as a result of the formula, we would also ensure that no province loses seats through this formula.
That is consistent across the whole of our bill. We have demonstrated this consistency when making our commitments to Canadians during past elections. Consistency, however, is not a feature of the Liberal position. Let me give some examples.
The Liberals have enjoyed quoting from committee reports from 1994. What they leave out is that the Liberal government at the time rejected the very advice and principles that the Liberals are trying to promote today.
The Liberal government of the time had no interest in fixing the obvious flaws of the current formula. It had no intention of reducing the number of seats in the House, freezing the size of the House or taking seats away from any provinces.
I am certainly not going to argue that our Conservative government has much in common with that previous Liberal government, quite the opposite in fact. Our Conservative government has continued the hard work of fixing many of the problems that the Liberal government did not care to deal with during its 13 years in power.
My point is this: the Liberal proposal is not firmly grounded in our country's history or any particular principle. The Liberal position is politically convenient. That is it. What is more, we are not exactly sure how the Liberals propose their plan would work in the future.
We have been clear. Our formula is fair, nationally applicable and permanent. Rules that would be applied in this readjustment would be applied in the same way in the next readjustment.
We have been clear in our bill. The Liberals have not even tabled a bill. They only held a press conference and presented a couple of charts. The member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville has been passionate about their ideas, but they have not tabled a bill, so we do not know how they plan to solve some of the major problems of their bill. Their proposal, as with the current formula, would quickly run up against the effect of the constitutional seat force, in this case the Senate floor rule.
Their proposal would continue to take seats away from smaller, slower growing provinces and give them to the larger, faster growing ones until they could not do that any more. The smaller, slower growing provinces are all very close to their Senate floors. Quickly it would become impossible to take seats away from them to give to the provinces that deserve increased representation. The Liberals have not put forward a bill that lays out how they propose to deal with this situation. I do not think Canadians should let them skip over this problem.
The Liberals' proposal immediately brings Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia down to their Senate floors. New Brunswick and P.E.I. are already at their Senate floors. After one readjustment, no more seats could be removed from Atlantic Canada.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba have some room to fall further, but then those provinces, which are significantly larger than any of the Atlantic provinces, would have the same or fewer seats than those Atlantic provinces. That cannot be fair at all. Saskatchewan and Manitoba's combined population of over 2.3 million could have fewer seats than New Brunswick and Nova Scotia's combined population of just over 1.7 million. In fact, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have approximately the same population as all four Atlantic provinces combined. To remove seats from these prairie provinces at all is clearly unfair and unjust to Canadians living in those provinces.
I suppose the Liberals could suggest taking even more seats away from Quebec. The Liberals have proposed taking three seats away from Quebec this time around, and I can only suppose that they would not see any problem with taking even more away.
What do the Liberals propose to avoid this situation? They have no idea because they have decided these issues are not important enough to them to table an actual bill.
I come back to my point that the Liberals' proposal is simply politically opportunistic. It is an attempt to score political points while ignoring the very real consequences of their proposal. They can do this because they do not have to worry about their proposal actually becoming law and a part of our Constitution. They know their proposal is flawed, that it will not become law and that they are not responsible for ensuring fairness for all Canadians.
Our Conservative government has responsibility for all these things. We have a responsibility to govern for all Canadians and to ensure fairness for all Canadians. That is why our proposal is fair for all Canadians. It is our job to make it that way and we have done exactly that. As I said, we made promises to Canadians. These principles form the basis of the bill and we are not going to move away from them. We are confident that we have struck the right balance and that our bill provides the most fair, practical and accurate way to move forward to what is fair representation.
Earlier in my remarks I made note of the committee stage this bill went through. I would like to return to that point to emphasize some of the strengths of the bill and our approach. One point I would like to emphasize is the source of our proposal to streamline the boundary readjustment process. Ultimately, these changes would help to complete the process faster which in turn would provide clarity to Canadians sooner with respect to their riding boundaries.
With these changes, we project that it will be possible to bring forward the completion of the boundary readjustment process in early 2014, instead of late 2014 under the present timelines. During the hearings of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, both the current Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Marc Mayrand, and the former chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, noted that these amendments are consistent with previous recommendations made by them and that there would be no problems associated with the timelines.
Mr. Mayrand stated:
We are confident that we and the commissions will be able to proceed and implement the new formula and the remainder of provisions of the legislation without too much difficulty, provided it's enacted in time.
Mr. Mayrand also stated that the best scenario was for this bill to be passed and in place in time for the February 8, 2012 start date of the readjustment process. During his testimony at committee, he spoke about the importance of having the legislation adopted as soon as possible and the danger of further delay. He said:
The best date, in our mind, would be before the commissions are set up in February. Otherwise, commissions will have to start their work, the legislation will come into place later on, and they will have to restart again. That may, of course, generate additional costs, but also quite a bit of confusion, depending on what time the legislation comes into place.
It is our intention to heed the advice of Canada's Chief Electoral Officer and prevent this sort of additional cost, duplication of effort and confusion.
I will also point out the changes of data source for the allocation of seats by provinces as a strength of this bill. This is the requirement in the bill that Statistics Canada's population estimates be used to determine the allocation of seats by province instead of the decennial census figures. The population estimates are the most accurate data available because they are adjusted to account for under-coverage of the census itself. These estimates are already used to determine the allocation of funding for the federal-provincial equalization program, the Canada health transfer, the Canada social transfer, and the territorial formula financing.
As Chief Statistician Wayne Smith stated during his testimony before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs:
--it is Statistics Canada's view that the currently available estimates of population at July 1 represent the best available evaluation of the population of the provinces and territories that is available at this time or that will be available on February 8. It is therefore appropriate, in our view, that they should be used for the purposes of Bill C-20.
Mr. Smith's comments represent a strong endorsement of our government's decision to use the best available data for each stage of this process. The census numbers will of course continue to be used for the electoral boundary readjustment process because they provide a level of geographic detail that is necessary to draw the boundaries, again the best data available for this stage of that process.
To conclude, for over two decades Canadians from Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta have become significantly under-represented in the House of Commons due to population growth. They will continue to become even more under-represented if action is not taken to correct the status quo. Clearly, this increasing and significant under-representation is not fair. Every Canadian's vote to the greatest extent possible should carry equal weight. Since forming government in 2006, our Conservative government has consistently demonstrated its commitment to fighting the significant and increasing under-representation of ordinary Canadians in the House of Commons.
Given that the decennial boundary readjustment process begins February 8, 2012, tonight's vote is the last opportunity for members to say to Canadians that the status quo is unacceptable. I encourage the opposition to vote in favour of this legislation which is fair for all provinces and which moves every single Canadian closer to representation by population.