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Government House Leader Peter Van Loan speaks in the Commons foyer on June 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan speaks in the Commons foyer on June 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jeffrey Simpson

Peter Van Loan's magical electoral turnabout Add to ...

Could that possibly be the same Peter Van Loan? No, there must be some mistake.

True, the old Peter Van Loan and the new Peter Van Loan seem to be one and the same person, the Conservative government's House Leader. But the new version is saying such different things about changing the size of the House of Commons that it's like a magician's trick.

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In November of 2007, the old Peter Van Loan released a document explaining why a bill to update the principle of representation by population in the Commons wouldn't achieve that objective. Alberta and British Columbia would get the seats to which they were entitled by the growth of their populations, he said. But Ontario, from which he hailed, didn't deserve the same treatment.

Rep by pop was fine for others, and overrepresentation was justified for the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But Ontario, with 40 per cent of the population, deserved just 35 per cent of the seats in the Commons, according to the old Mr. Van Loan. He invented all sorts of reasons why his province should be underrepresented by 10 or 11 seats. Adding them, he argued, would make the Commons too big. Technical, mathematical reasons of unfathomable complexity were also offered in the document he released.

When Ontario's Dalton McGuinty assailed that formula, the combative Mr. Van Loan said the Premier was the "small man of Confederation."

Nothing the old Mr. Van Loan said could obscure the real reason for short-changing Ontario: Quebec's objections. Quebec was going to lose ground because its population growth was small. The question was by how much it would lose relative weight. The National Assembly, supported by the Bloc Québécois, insisted that Quebec was a "nation" and, therefore, deserved not to lose any relative ground to Ontario within Confederation.

Back in those days, the Harper Conservatives were turning themselves into pretzels to woo Quebec. After all, it was Stephen Harper himself who got Parliament to accept a motion describing French-speaking Quebeckers as a "nation" within Canada. So to please Quebec, the old Mr. Van Loan invented tortuous arguments to justify shafting Ontario to placate Quebec.

Fast forward to today. Mr. Van Loan, after a stint at International Trade, is once again House Leader. High on his list of priorities is a bill to update representation in the Commons. But this time, he says it's only fair that all the fastest-growing provinces, including Ontario, get the seats to which they're entitled.

Arguments that seemed so important, if strained, to the same minister 3½ years ago on the same issue have been dropped in favour of a straightforward defence of rep by pop. What was apparently unacceptable then has suddenly become acceptable.

In fairness, the Conservatives changed their position after failing to make much headway in Quebec in the 2008 election. Their dreams of a Quebec breakthrough having been dashed, they turned their political attention to Ontario, especially the very areas of the province that would receive new seats: in and around Greater Toronto.

A bill to update the electoral map languished on the order paper during the last Parliament, because the Conservatives were still hesitating in the face of pressure from Quebec and Atlantic Canada and its rural caucus, all of which will lose clout in the update.

But now, with gains in Ontario having given the Conservatives their majority and thus demonstrating their ability to woo that province, the government issued the new Peter Van Loan his marching orders to give Alberta, B.C. and Ontario the seats they deserve.

The bill will go to committee, and each party will examine it from the perspective of its political advantage. The bill will be especially hard on the NDP, with all those new Quebec MPs, many of whom will presumably hew to the province's line that Quebec shouldn't lose its share of seats in the Commons.

NDP Leader Jack Layton will likely he squirming. Perhaps he should consult Mr. Van Loan's old speeches.

 

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