This government's first major legislative proposal is about the worst choice our new Parliament can make. What Canadians need least is a larger House of Commons and an upper house of any kind – elected or appointed.
Despite rationalizations of expanding the Commons so that growth regions will have more equitable representation, that is not the motive at all. This proposal is not primarily to give them more MPs. It is designed to prevent regions with static or declining populations from having their representation cut.
That has been the driver in reapportioning the Commons since the 1970s, when all parties bought the expediency of enlarging the total number of MPs so that provinces would not lose representation – and hence, clout – if their populations fell.
Redrawing the electoral map could not be avoided because the Constitution requires redistribution after a census. But there was no constitutional limit on the total size of the Commons. Ergo – just increase the total membership and keep everyone happy, or at least quiet.
Well, why not? The first reason is that it is not necessary for giving the people adequate representation. The average member of the U.S. House of Representatives represents more than 400,000 voters. While our American neighbours are never backward about coming forward with political protest, none of them even whispers that they need more politicians in their lower house. Why must Canadians smoke this propaganda drug that the more MPs we have, the happier we'll be?
Even our massive distances do not provide an argument. Yes, our northern territories do cover space-age distances, but most of the people live in a few urban centres there. Territorial MPs do not have to spend their weekends on dog sleds, mushing from one settlement to another.
They can communicate with most of their people without going outside a few towns.
In a time when cutting a gargantuan deficit has to be a government priority, reducing the cost of the Commons should surely come ahead of cutting health care – especially when its work could be done better by fewer rather than more MPs.
Parliament – as the name itself indicates – should primarily be a place for debate, and that purpose could be fulfilled by a reduced membership better than by an increased one. But is it likely to happen?
Not when a government proposes something as senseless as preserving the Senate. If ever there was an institution dedicated to futility, this has to be it. In our early decades following Confederation, each province had one, but over time, each province had the good sense to abolish it. Does anyone now say that what the provinces need to function better is restoring upper chambers to their legislatures?
It cannot be demonstrated, either, that having a federal Senate ensures the regions of being adequately represented where the decisions are made. The real champions of the regions are not senators at all. They are the premiers. They meet regularly. They have their own staffs. They – not senators or MPs – are the voice of the regions where it counts – in eyeball-to-eyeball sessions with the prime minister.
Can it encourage citizens then to learn that the first act of a newly elected majority government will be to perpetuate a mistake?
Reginald Stackhouse is a former member of Parliament.