moved that Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic representation), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to open the second reading debate on Bill C-12, the democratic representation act.
Our government is committed to restoring fairer representation for faster-growing provinces. We made this a throne speech commitment because we believe that to the greatest extent possible, each Canadian’s vote should carry equal weight.
Bill C-12 will do this by restoring the democratic principle of representation by population in the House of Commons. Representation of the provinces in the House is readjusted every 10 years using a formula in our Constitution. At Confederation, representation by population, or as some say, “rep by pop”, was the basis for the seat distribution.
The formula has been amended a number of times since Confederation to respond to demographic changes as our country has grown and evolved. Bill C-12 is the next step in that process. It makes key improvements to the existing formula, which has caused faster growing provinces to become under-represented in the House.
So members can fully understand the importance of this legislation, I will describe how the current formula works and how it adversely impacts democratic representation. I will then outline the positive effects of Bill C-12 in moving the House of Commons closer to representation by population, while protecting the representation of smaller and slower growing provinces. I hope that by the end of my remarks opposition members will agree that Bill C-12 is needed to ensure that all provinces are fairly represented in this place.
The existing constitutional formula for readjusting House seats was passed in the Representation Act, 1985.
The 1985 formula was designed in the context of a seriously flawed formula enacted in 1974. That old formula would have resulted in extremely large numbers of additional seats following the 1981 census. As a result, the formula we now have in our Constitution was deliberately designed to limit the growth of the House of Commons. While this goal was reasonable in theory, in reality it has penalized faster growing provinces. Let me explain.
As a first step, the 1985 Parliament divides the population of the provinces by 279, which was the number of provincial seats in the House at that time.
Then, the population of each province is divided by that quotient to determine the number of seats for each province.
As a second step, two constitutional seat guarantees provided a top-up for some provinces. The Senate floor, passed in 1915, guarantees that each province will have at least as many seats in the House as it has in the Senate. This protects, for example, P.E.I.'s four seats. Then there is the grandfather clause, which guarantees each province, at a minimum, the number of seats it had as of 1985.
Taken together, the effects of these two seat floors are significant. First, it means that all provinces, except Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, rely on seat floors rather than population to maintain their seat count in the House.
Second, the formula allows the three faster-growing provinces to get a proportional share of only 279 seats, even though the House has expanded to 305 provincial seats since the 1980s. Of course, there are three additional seats for the territories.
Third, the extra four seats for slower-growing provinces, which are not based on population, further erode the relative representation of the faster-growing provinces.
As a result, the three faster-growing provinces have become significantly under-represented in the House. For example, in the last readjustment, Ontario received only 34.8% of the provincial seats while its share of the provincial population was well over 38%.
This is not just a symbolic problem. It has a real impact on MPs and the people they represent.
Based on the 2006 census, MPs from Ontario, B.C. and Alberta represent, on average, 26,000 more constituents than MPs from other provinces.
As well, because faster growing provinces are prevented from getting a fair number of seats based on population, there are fewer seats to distribute within those provinces. This creates major differences in riding populations when electoral boundaries are drawn.
The difference in riding populations between provinces is also significant. For example, the member for Battlefords—Lloydminster represents about 71,000 constituents. Next door, the Alberta MP for Vegreville—Wainwright has more than 111,000 constituents.
These effects on Canada's democratic representation will only get worse if the current formula is not changed.
The Lortie commission on electoral democracy recognized this in 1992, when it stated on page 129 of volume one of its final report:
The Representation Act, 1985 substantially modified the principle of proportionate representation to an extent never before experienced
The report goes on to say, on page 131:
In short, the formula errs in two ways: it fails to give sufficient weight to the constitutional principle of proportionate representation; and its restriction on increases in the number of Commons seats, which works to penalize the provinces experiencing population growth, is not related to any principle of representation.
That is why the government has introduced Bill C-12, to restore the principle of democratic representation in this place.
The democratic representation act would amend the constitutional formula for readjusting seats to bring fair representation to the House, while maintaining the seat counts of slower growing provinces.
First, the bill would remove the artificial ceiling of 279 in the current formula that penalizes Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.
In the next readjustment, after the 2011 census, seats in the House will instead be based on a maximum average riding population of 108,000, which was approximately the average riding size in Canada during the last election.
In other words, seats will be determined by dividing a province's population by 108,000 and rounding up any remainder. This ensures that the average riding population in any province is no greater than 108,000 people.
Compared to the current formula, this means faster growing provinces will receive more seats because of the rise in their population. The exact number of seats cannot be known until after the 2011 census is completed, but under the principles of this bill, the representation of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta will be much closer to representation by population.
It is important I mention another aspect of Bill C-12. This bill protects the constitutional seat guarantees.
This means no province will lose seats, even though its population may be in relative decline. It also means all provinces except Ontario, B.C. and Alberta will continue to receive extra seats to maintain their current seat counts.
Obviously, if a slower growing province has a sufficient population increase in the future, it could receive additional seats beyond those guaranteed by the seat floors. But in the meantime, the seat floors will continue to ensure that average riding populations in these provinces are lower than in faster growing provinces.
Another major feature of Bill C-12 is that seat counts in subsequent readjustments will increase on a principled basis.
The maximum average riding population, which will initially be set at 108,000, increases each subsequent readjustment based on the rate of growth in all the provinces. To take an example, the population of all the provinces is projected to grow from more than 34 million in 2011 to over 38 million in 2021. The percentage increase in population would be applied to 108,000 to create a new maximum average population of about 120,000 for the readjustment following 2021 census.
Based on this, only a limited number of new seats would be added to the House for those provinces that have grown faster than the national average.
In contrast, the current formula, which penalizes population growth, Bill C-12 recognizes and reflects it in the House. At the same time, overall growth in the House will be moderated in the future.
Our government is committed to giving fair representation to faster-growing provinces. That is why we have introduced this bill. I believe the opposition can agree with me that some basic principles of fair democratic representation are advanced under Bill C-12.
First, the representation of the elected assembly should be based on population as much as possible. This means that the representation should reflect the population growth and demographic realities of our country. Bill C-12 would strengthen this principle by ensuring that faster-growing provinces receive fair representation in this House.
Second, as a democratic society, we should strive as much as possible for the ideal of one person, one vote. This means that average riding populations should not unduly vary in size from one province to another.
Bill C-12 would significantly reduce the average riding population for faster-growing provinces. In the next readjustment, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta would have average riding populations of less than 108,000 people, compared to more than 120,000 constituents under the current formula. The imbalance that exists under the current formula led the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation to call Canada one of the worst violators of the principle of one person, one vote among the federations of the world.
A third basic principle of democratic representation is that smaller provinces may need better representation to ensure their opinions and concerns are heard. Bill C-12 would protect the seat counts of all provinces, guaranteeing that slower-growing provinces will not lose any seats.
I would like to make it clear that there are no extra seats being given to faster-growing provinces under Bill C-12. Unlike every other province, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta will receive seats based on their population alone.
It may be tempting for critics to argue that the increase in seats for faster-growing provinces impacts the relative representation of other provinces. I believe this argument is based on a false premise. In fact, it is the other seven provinces that receive more seats than their populations merit, thanks to constitutional seat guarantees.
There is good reason for this, including historic compromises and the recognition of slower-growing and particular smaller provinces need enhanced representation to protect their voices in this place. However, it is these extra four seats that also impact the relative representation of other provinces and prevent strict representation by population in the House.
At its core, representation in this House is a delicate balance between competing democratic principles.
Bill C-12 strikes a balance that I believe on which all Canadians, no matter where they live, can agree. I urge the opposition parties to support the bill so we can restore representation by population in the House.