Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this bill, the fair representation act.
Representation by population was the guiding principle in determining the allocation of seats in the House of Commons at the time of Confederation, but over time the representation formula used to readjust seats based on population changes has actually served to penalize some of Canada's fastest growing regions.
We have especially noted the disparity in my home province of Alberta, where an average federal riding contains some 27,000 more constituents than ridings in most other provinces. In my riding of Wild Rose, I am proud to represent people who live in 28 different communities, a municipal district, three counties, an improvement district in Banff National Park, and two first nations reserves. Those people are all spread out across a big and beautiful 28,000 square kilometre constituency.
As of the 2006 census, our riding was home to more than 116,000 people, but with the explosive growth that we have seen since then, the estimate that we have currently of my riding's population is somewhere in the neighbourhood of about 135,000. If we compare that to some ridings in other parts of the country, we see where the differences are.
For example, looking at the province of P.E.I., it has about the same population of 135,000 as my constituency does, yet there are four members of Parliament to represent them. Voters in Wild Rose have one MP to represent nearly the same number of people that those in P.E.I. have four MPs to represent. I would like to believe that I am as valuable as four MPs, but I will probably have to settle with knowing that I represent the same number of people as the four other MPs.
In all seriousness, in this current state of affairs, one vote in P.E.I. in terms of representation is essentially worth nearly four votes in Alberta. By any measure, that is certainly not fair. However, a constitutionally guaranteed floor of representation for some provinces makes it virtually impossible for the House of Commons to balance its seats in order to reflect strict representation by population. If we were to try, the House would swell to over 900 members. We would be voting from up in the public galleries and spilling out into the foyers, and maybe we could swing a few people from the chandeliers somewhere. That would obviously make for a very cumbersome and expensive Parliament that I suspect very few Canadians would find reasonable or affordable.
Luckily, this hallowed chamber can easily accommodate the 30 new members who will soon take their seats here. On that topic, I will give some interesting trivia. A 1996 study found that the chamber could actually accommodate up to 374 members, if we were to include seating under the side galleries. We are still good for space, and I would like to settle everyone's anxiety in that regard.
Rather than unrealistically expanding the seats in the House as strict representation by population would require, our government is working within the framework of the constitutional realities to deliver on our election commitment to Canadians to move the House of Commons closer to fair representation.
This legislation reflects our government's three distinct promises to provide fair representation by: allocating an increased number of seats, both now and in the future, to better reflect population growth in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta; maintaining the number of seats for smaller provinces; and maintaining the proportion of representation of Quebec exactly according to its population.
The current representation of the provinces in the House of Commons is readjusted every 10 years using a formula established in section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867. The current formula dates to 1985 and was redesigned to provide modest increases to the size of the House. While the 1985 formula has been successful in limiting the growth of the House of Commons, it has also created a representation gap for the faster growing provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. The fair representation act proposes to address that gap.
Currently, 279 is set as the divisor in determining the average population count per federal seat. As a result, provinces with fast growing populations, like my province of Alberta, are prevented from receiving a fair share of seats because the actual number of members in the House of Commons is now 308. Over 60% of Canada's population is, and would continue to be, seriously under-represented if we were to keep this formula.
The twin problems of fixing the divisor at 279, in combination with existing seat guarantees in the Constitution, have prevented the three fast-growing provinces from receiving a share of seats that is line with their relative share of the population.
However, Bill C-20 addresses that by using Statistics Canada population estimates to determine how many seats each province would receive. Statistics Canada's population estimates are already considered the best data for determining total provincial populations. In fact, those estimates are 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. They are an established way to project populations and to address their needs.
The bill also would adjust the formula to account for future increases in population counts following future censuses. This approach would provide accuracy and certainty on provincial seat numbers.
Therefore, under the terms of Bill C-20, Ontario would receive 15 new seats, rather than only three new seats under the status quo; Alberta would receive six new seats, rather than only three under the current formula; and British Columbia would receive six new seats, rather than only one under the old formula.
I cannot overstate the fact that Canadians living in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta have become increasingly under-represented in the House of Commons. That is not fair and it is unacceptable in an assembly of equals. A Canadian living in Alberta has as much to say about the future direction that he or she wants his or her country to take as a Canadian living in P.E.I., or any other province, and should have an equal say in our Parliament.
That is why our government is taking this principled approach that would strike a balance between restoring fairer representation for faster growing provinces, while protecting the seat counts of slower growth provinces, as well.
For Alberta, my province, this would mean a stronger voice for a province that is among the fastest growing regions in all of Canada.
We must do this quickly. It seems like just yesterday that Canadians voted to give our Conservative government a strong, stable majority mandate on the basis of our election platform, which, of course, included this commitment to move toward fairer representation in the House of Commons. However, it was not just yesterday. It was actually more than seven months ago. Time has passed quickly and it has a tendency to continue to fly. Another election is not so far away as we might think.
As we must give Elections Canada time to properly establish the new constituencies that would come into being under the bill, with the next representation update already due and to begin in early 2012 following the release of this year's census results, we need to be ready with this legislation passed and the work of the provincial seat counts and boundary redistributions complete in order to have these new seats established and ready to be contested by the time the next election rolls around.
With regard to redistribution, it is important to note that Bill C-20 would also amend the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act to streamline the timelines in the current boundary readjustment process. However, there would be no changes to the timelines for the parliamentary phase of the electoral boundary process and Canadians, of course, would have the same opportunity to voice their opinions on boundary changes during public hearings held by the commissions.
Because those important consultations are in place, it is vital that we move quickly to meet the various deadlines that we would face beginning in the new year to most effectively bring these changes into place for Canadians.
We, on this side of the House, invite and encourage our colleagues across the way to join us in making every Canadian's vote, to the greatest extent possible, of course, carry equal weight in the House of Commons. I say this because, with respect, the alternative proposals of the opposition parties fall short in addressing the problem of under-representation.
The Liberals have a proposal that would freeze the House at the current 308 seats, but it would do so by pitting regions of Canada against one another. They would simply shuffle the deck by taking away seats from some provinces to give to others. Given constitutional provisions guaranteeing seats, that proposal is simply not realistic.
The NDP proposal is also problematic. That party wants to guarantee a fixed percentage of seats, now and in the future, to one province, regardless of that province's population. It is proposing special treatment to one province that would not be available to any other. That would undermine the principle of proportional representation upon which Canada was founded and which I referenced earlier. It would lead to far higher seat growth than what Bill C-20 proposes and it would penalize provinces that are already seriously under-represented. That would only serve to kick the problem of under-representation further down the road a ways, and that is certainly not leadership.
Only our Conservative government is taking a balanced approach to this admittedly thorny problem of representation. I would urge all members opposite to support the bill and to work with our government to implement it.