Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to voice my strong opposition to Bill C-18, an act to suspend the operation of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. I feel quite strongly that this government's taking it upon itself to halt these proceedings, resulting in the disbanding of the existing electoral boundary commissions is not only unethical but also is highly irregular.
Of the approximate $8 million allocated for the readjustment process an estimated $5 million has already been spent. If the bill is passed into law, how much additional funding will be required to revisit the ground already covered? In other words, how much of the $5 million will have been wasted?
Although I am completely opposed to the bill, my opposition should not be misconstrued to mean that I am happy with the proposals the commissions have drafted for redefining existing electoral boundaries. Certainly there seems to be widespread concern among my colleagues in this place. However I have yet to see evidence that their concern is echoed by the Canadian electorate.
My constituency of Prince George-Peace River is huge. It encompasses 212,000 square kilometres in the northeast corner of British Columbia, stretching from the city of Prince George in central B.C. all the way to the Yukon border. No other federal riding straddles the Rocky Mountains, and this poses a serious barrier for winter travel in the constituency. The Pine Pass connecting the Peace River area with the rest of the province has one of the highest annual snowfalls found anywhere in Canada. Having lived all my life in the north, I can personally vouch for the difficulty it presents for east-west travel within the riding. To travel by road from the Lower Post community on the Yukon border to Prince George in the south requires driving some 1,300 kilometres. This does not take into account any side trips to communities lying off the main arterial routes of the Alaska or Hart highways.
In addition to the three main centres of population of Prince George, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, the riding encompasses some seven additional smaller municipalities beginning in the north with Fort Nelson. These include Taylor, Hudson Hope, Pouce Coupe, Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge and Mackenzie. There are also 15 native communities located in the constituency. Some are inaccessible by road during summer months; others can only be reached by air, river boat or snowmobile.
Not only is the riding a blend of urban and rural; it is also a home to a mixture of diverse industries. With over 80 per cent of the arable land of British Columbia located in the Peace River district, the riding has a strong agricultural base. The economic viability of the area is further assured by the existence of many other industries such as oil and gas, lumber, pulp and paper, mining, hydroelectric, trapping, guiding, tourism and manufacturing. Representing such a multitude of interests and concerns is already an incredible challenge to the member of Parliament.
Under the proposed electoral boundary changes the physical size of the riding will be lengthened by adding roughly 300 kilometres of the Yellowhead highway and a further 70 or so of the Cariboo highway south of Prince George. This increase in geographical size will be offset by losing the one-third of Prince George currently contained within the riding. The elimination of confusion that currently results from having Prince George split into two ridings must be weighed against the fact that the MP will have to travel through Prince George to service the 10 or so smaller communities in the extreme southern end of the new riding.
The only other noteworthy change is the loss of the native community of Lower Post near the Yukon border. Under the proposed changes this community would find itself in the riding of Skeena, even though the MP would have to travel through part of Yukon to get to it.
Although the suggested boundaries would ensure that the new riding of Peace-Yellowhead has a more consistent rural flavour, I am not in favour of the proposal because of the substantial increase in the physical size. It is proving more than difficult enough now to get around the riding on anything resembling a regular basis, without the addition of hundreds more kilometres. Even allowing for the increasing use of toll-free phone lines and faxes, constituents in far-flung small communities continue to expect a periodic personal visit from their MP.
It is my intention, therefore, to take advantage of the same option open to any other Canadian living in northern British Columbia. I will make my concerns known to the commission when it holds its public hearing in Prince George on June 2.
My concern about the impending passage of the bill is not that the changes are the best ones possible or even that they are really necessary. My concern is that the bill will be viewed by the public as just the latest example of politicians thinking they are free to alter any process they believe is not in their personal best interest.
These commissions have been set up to be free of political interference. I can readily imagine the never ending arguments and endless disputes which will arise if the issue of electoral boundaries were left in the hands of politicians.
If I may be so bold I would issue on behalf of all Canadians a word of caution to the government. If members opposite proceed with this plan it will be viewed as extremely self-serving by the general public. Just as in the case of gold-plated MP pension plans, expense allowances or other benefits of our elected offices, Canadians want to see decision making powers regarding these types of things removed from the politicians and placed under the jurisdiction of totally independent bodies.
Canadians are sick and tired of this double standard. There appears to be one set of rules for politicians and another quite different set for the rest of Canadians. If members have legitimate concerns about the changes as proposed by the commissions as I do, they should make representations at the
appropriate hearing, not attempt an end run by circumventing the process.
I do not believe that Liberals have a problem with the process. The real reason is that they do not like the results. Even a quick comparison between the old electoral boundaries and the proposed new ones indicates substantive alterations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the present Liberal power base of southern Ontario.
It is common knowledge that an incumbent enjoys a considerable advantage at election time. Over the life of a Parliament an MP establishes many contacts within the confines of his or her constituency. However when those boundaries are subjected to major changes or as in some cases an entire existing riding is completely eliminated, the incumbent suffers the loss of this comparative advantage. In effect this means he or she is virtually starting over. It places challengers on a much more even footing during the following election. It is this loss of advantage that is behind the government's sudden need for further reviews.
What will be accomplished by a 24-month delay? I believe it is simply the intention of the government to ensure the changes do not come into force in time to alter the boundaries prior to the next general election. The bill would immediately disband the existing commissions and enable the government to form new ones with new people two years from now. There is only one legitimate reason for delaying the process.
There are currently 295 MPs in this place. Surely that is more than enough to govern our country. Rather than a further increase of six seats as is required under the Constitution following the last census, we need fewer MPs, not more. At the very least the government should fully and completely commit itself to establishing a cap on the total number of members. To say it would review the present system of continual increases I would contend is simply not good enough. If Canadians are to believe the government really intends to limit the number they must be able to see that commitment.
In summary, the present system allows for input from all interested parties. I am prepared to take my turn along with all other northern B.C. stakeholders at the hearing in Prince George on June 2. I urge members opposite to consider carefully how the public will view their intended meddling in this process.