Last week, the Chief Electoral Officer submitted his report on the planned increases to the number of federal ridings based on the current legislated formula, and deduced, based on the census data and estimates of population growth, that there should be four new seats added, which will bring the total to 342 seats by somewhere around 2024. The plan is to give Alberta three new seats, British Columbia one, Ontario one, and more controversially, to reduce Quebec by one seat – something that hasn’t happened since 1966. This will start a fight in the House of Commons – the Bloc are adamant that Quebec cannot lose a seat, and one imagines that the Liberals will be sympathetic to the argument – and it leads us to ask whether four new seats is really enough, or if we should add more? A lot more.
A decade ago, the Liberals argued that the Commons didn’t need any more politicians, and proposed instead to keep the number capped at 308 – the way that the American House of Representatives is capped at 435 members, and that they simply redistribute some of those seats – but not taking any away from Quebec, or from the constitutionally-protected floor that the Atlantic provinces have. The Conservatives, meanwhile, were trying to implement a new formula for seat distribution that would explicitly screw Ontario out of seats that it deserved based on its population growth, and in the end, after much pushback, they settled for a formula that gave Ontario some additional seats, but far fewer than their population merited.
In spite of the populist pandering that all parties engage in around wanting fewer politicians, the simple fact is that there is a need for more bodies in the House of Commons. There aren’t enough MPs to go around in order to fill spots on committees without also having parliamentary secretaries on those committees, and even more to the point, that they are not on them as voting members. When we last had a government with a majority of the seats, they agreed to reduce committees from twelve members to ten, and parliamentary secretaries that attended were non-voting, but in a hung parliament, committees were back up to twelve members apiece in order to have a better balance of members based on their standing in the Chamber, and lo, parliamentary secretaries were not only back, but as voting members. This is a very bad thing for the independence of committees (and indeed, during the Harper years, this kind of stacking of committees had turned some of them into branch plants of ministers’ offices). The solution is more MPs.
Experience from places like Westminster, with its 650 MPs, shows that more backbenchers makes for a stronger, more independent backbench, because there are fewer opportunities for advancement, whether to Cabinet or as a parliamentary secretary (or your local equivalent). Currently, too many backbenchers feel that they are but one ministerial screw-up away from a seat on the front bench, which makes too many of them overly compliant and deferential to the leader and his or her office, creating a fear-or-favour system that is toxic to how our parliament should be operating. I’m not saying that we need to go the full 650 MP route – but we could increase the number we do have by a lot more than four. And given that the plan for the renovated House of Commons in the Centre Block will move away from desks in favour of benches, that takes away another excuse for not expanding the number of MPs more than we are.
Another reason to substantially increase the number of MPs we have is that it will move us toward a more equitable distribution of riding weight than what currently exists, where riding populations can deviate by as much as 25 percent (the territories and PEI excluded). If you remove those four from consideration, the average population differences remain huge – from an average of 130,672 population in Alberta to 74,365 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Having more seats would allow us to better narrow some of those gaps so the discrepancies wouldn’t be quite so huge – and hopefully, reduce the geographic size of rural and northern ridings, some of which are larger than France.
Of course, this will require some balancing, because there will be complaints that Ontario will get a lot more seats, and remain a juggernaut in the House of Commons electorally. It will mean more urban seats, and once could imagine that Conservatives will complain that it will disadvantage them, as they do better in rural ridings (though one could argue that the answer is not to maintain the status quo for their benefit, but rather that they need policies that will better appeal to urban voters). But the exercise of doing some of this balancing of interests shouldn’t be a barrier to the work necessary that would give us more MPs, and the benefits to how Parliament functions that would result from that increase.
When the debate over these changes breaks out – and it will, because the Bloc will see to it – it should behove MPs, and most especially the government, to propose a larger increase than just those four MPs. The Liberals should admit that they were wrong in 2011 to suggest a hard cap of 308 MPs, and they should work toward increasing that number under the rubric of better and fairer representation, where we get much closer to the ideal of one-person-one-vote in terms of the equitable distribution of that single vote’s power in the grand scheme of the House of Commons. Yes, it would mean a lot more work for the electoral boundaries commissions in each of the ten provinces once they are struck, and a lot more conversations about what defines a community to be drawn up on a map (without resorting to American-style gerrymandering), but in the end, the benefits of a stronger House with more independent backbenchers would be a net gain for Canada, and we should not pass up this opportunity for that change.