Before finally bringing forward legislation to rebalance the House of Commons, Stephen Harper had to overcome some pretty strong opposition from an unusual source: his own MPs.
The Fair Representation Act, unveiled on Thursday, seeks to redress the serious under-representation in the House of Commons of fast-growing urban ridings in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.
The bill, the Tories’ third attempt to re-jig the House, may have hit the sweet spot, with opposition parties offering grudging – and two provinces outright – support.
But before the bill could be unveiled, Mr. Harper was forced to hold a special session of caucus on Monday night to address the complaints of MPs who wanted to know why Quebec would also receive additional seats, even though its population is in relative decline.
Under a new formula announced by Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal, Ontario will receive 15 additional seats, up from the 106 it currently has; British Columbia will add six to its complement of 36, while Alberta will also go up by six, from 28.
To prevent its representation in the House from dropping below what its population warrants, Quebec will receive three seats, bringing it to 78 and enlarging the House in total by 30 seats, to 338.
Those additional Quebec seats caused consternation among Conservative backbenchers, who were concerned that Canada’s French-speaking province was benefiting from a bill meant to address under-representation in the three large and fast-growing anglophone provinces.
At the Monday caucus meeting, Mr. Harper made his case: A version of the bill that died with the last Parliament would have left Quebec underrepresented. No province, he said, should be punished to improve the lot of others.
The final bill, he added, was based on the latest population projections, which is another reason the formula differed from two previous bills.
Sources report that the Prime Minister’s pitch sufficiently mollified the Conservative caucus that it now stands behind the bill.
It won’t hurt caucus solidarity to hear that early reviews are positive.
“I think they got close,” B.C. Premier Christy Clark said in an interview. “Perfection in these things is impossible because it's a big and complicated country. The thing that is really encouraging about it is, we now have a formula that means we will not continue to be under-represented.”
That formula also makes it possible for Quebec to lose some or all of its three additional seats if a future census finds it falling farther behind. The bill guarantees the province no more than the 75 seats enshrined in previous legislation.
Yvon Vallières, Quebec’s Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, said the Charest government would study the bill before responding.
Matthew Mendelsohn of the Mowat Centre, an Ontario-issues think tank, said the new bill “moves us much closer” to honouring the principle of representation by population.
Voters in large urban ridings where new Canadians often dominate will have a greater say in who forms the government and their concerns will occupy more of Parliament’s time and attention, he said.
Fairer representation for Alberta at the federal level is “welcome news and long overdue,” spokesman Mike Seising said on behalf of Cal Dallas, the province’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. Premier Alison Redford’s government supports the bill.
The federal opposition parties were relatively positive in their response. “We appreciate that they listened to us on this bill,” NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said.
“Let’s put it this way, it’s better than the last two,” Liberal Leader Bob Rae said. Both leaders want extensive consultation with the premiers and public before promising their support.
In fact, there could be little consultation. The Conservatives want the bill passed before the House rises in December for the winter recess so the changes will be in time for the 2015 election.
With reports from Justine Hunter, Rhéal Séguin and The Canadian Press