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.