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Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager
Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager

Tom Flanagan

The best seats in the House Add to ...

After five years and several iterations, the Conservative government has developed an approach to reallocating House of Commons seats that is both principled and pragmatic.

It has wisely resisted demands that Quebec’s share of seats should be fixed at 25 per cent, or some other arbitrary level, regardless of population trends. Instead, it has taken the more defensible position that Quebec’s share should be the same as its share of the Canadian population. And if that principle is followed, the aggregate seat total of the other nine provinces will also be proportionate to population.

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The most important political fact about Canada is its linguistic dualism. Keeping Canada together means showing respect for both major language groups, and the government’s new proposal accomplishes that. Both Quebec, which operates mainly in French, and the other nine provinces, which operate mainly in English, will get the proportion of House seats that their share of population dictates.

Of course, this leaves a secondary problem within the group of nine, because previous constitutional enactments have guaranteed that no province can have fewer MPs than senators, or fewer seats than it had in 1985. These enactments mean that Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Manitoba and Saskatchewan will continue to be overrepresented, while Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia will be underrepresented. The government at first wanted to make Quebec share the burden of underrepresentation but has now relented by promising Quebec three additional seats to keep its representation proportionate.

That decision, in effect, creates three classes of provinces: the six smallest ones, which are somewhat overrepresented; Quebec, which is proportionately represented; and the other three large provinces, which are slightly underrepresented. It’s asymmetrical federalism, to be sure, but the best that can be done under the circumstances.

Maybe some provinces are more equal than others, but this Albertan can’t work up a sense of grievance about yielding a few extra seats to Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces. Alberta, B.C. and Ontario now have most of the money and people in Canada, and the governing party, while holding seats everywhere, is mainly based in these three provinces. It’s not a serious threat to their interests to let the smaller provinces have a slightly stronger voice than numbers would warrant. The United States accomplishes that through the Senate, where the smaller states are heavily overrepresented; but since our unelected Senate can’t carry the weight, we can make some minor adjustments in the House.

The West as a whole will do just fine under the new formula because the slight injustice to Alberta and B.C. in terms of seats is balanced by the overrepresentation of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Ontario has some minor cause for complaint because it will have 121 of 338 seats, or 35.8 per cent, but 38.9 per cent of Canada’s population. Nevertheless, Ontario will still have by far the largest bloc of seats, much bigger than any other province or region. Will Ontarians be upset because strict arithmetic should give them 131 seats rather than 121? I doubt it.

Politics is more than arithmetic. The Supreme Court of Canada said in 1991, when it ruled on the issue of equity in representation: “Deviations from absolute voter parity … may be justified on the grounds of practical impossibility or the provision of more effective representation. Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic.”

This is a good bill, and Parliament should pass it quickly to ensure it can be implemented for the 2015 election.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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