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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa bestows more seats on Ontario, B.C., Alberta - and Quebec

Parliament Hill, Oct. 18, 2011.


Ontario will get 15 new seats, British Columbia and Alberta six each and Quebec three in the latest and probably final attempt by the Harper government to rejig the House of Commons in favour of the fast-growing provinces.

Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal introduced the Fair Representation Act Thursday in Brampton West – the most populous riding in Canada, more than four times the size of some of the smallest.

Because smaller provinces that have more seats than their populations warrant are protected constitutionally and legislatively from losing seats, the Conservatives have chosen to settle the problem of underrepresentation by the growing provinces by enlarging the House, which will expand to 338 from 308 seats.

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"Canadians rightly expect fair and principled representation in their democratic institutions," Mr. Uppal declared. This third effort to provide just that is expected to be passed into law as early as the end of this year, in order for the new seats to come into existence in time for the 2015 election.

The enlarged House will increase the cost of holding a general election by $11.5-million, and increase the budget for operating the House by $14.8-million annually.

The Conservative attempt to rebalance the federal legislature has gone through many permutations. Ontario, B.C. and Alberta are seriously underrepresented in the House, while smaller provinces are overrepresented, sometimes egregiously. Quebec is currently slightly overrepresented.

A first effort during the first Harper minority government went nowhere, when it was revealed that Ontario would receive considerably fewer seats than it needed to come even close to its fair share of representation-by-population in the House of Commons.

A second effort during the second minority government failed when a new formula would have left Quebec slightly underrepresented. MPs from rural ridings in all parties also protested, encouraging the Conservatives to drop the bill.

This third effort seeks to prevent Quebec from dropping below its proper level of representation, while still improving the standings of the three growing provinces in the House.

Earlier this month, leaked information suggested that the government had decided to increase Ontario's seat count by 13 from its current allotment of 106, down from the 18 seats it was to have had in the previous version of the bill.

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British Columbia would receive five seats instead of its original allotment of seven. Alberta's situation would actually improve, increasing its count by six instead of its original five.

In that version, Quebec was to receive two seats, to keep its representation in the House from dropping below its 23-per-cent share of the population.

But Mr. Uppal dismissed these reports as "pure speculation." This final formula brings Ontario and B.C. closer to the share promised in the previous bill, which Mr. Uppal said was based on out-of-date population projections, while preserving Quebec's proper level of representation.

The difference between this and previous bills is that the Conservatives will use the power of their majority to get it passed. They may have to. Liberal Democratic Reform critic Stephane Dion urged a go-slow approach at any attempt to rebalance the House.

"Democratic reform is not a game and must be done in coordination with the provinces," he said in a news release. Giving the provinces a veto on adding seats to the House of Commons would likely prevent any changes from taking place.

Mr. Dion also urged the Conservatives to give Parliament plenty of time to study the bill. Quite the opposite is likely to happen. To ensure the bill is law in time for the next election, the Harper government may use closure to shut down opposition debate.

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