POLITICS

House Of Commons Seat Redistribution: Tories Squash Input From Provinces And Senate To Pass Legislation At Breakneck Speed

12/14/2011 04:46 EST | Updated 02/13/2012 05:12 EST
AP

The Conservatives' Christmas gift to Canadians is coming Friday: 30 new MPs and a $19.3 million annual price tag.

It is the biggest change to the composition of the House of Commons in 26 years, and it's being rushed through Parliament at unprecedented speed, resulting in no provincial input and no consideration of amendments, just the way the Conservative Government intended.

Tuesday, the Tories used their majority to send bill C-20 to the Senate for further study. That evening, the Tories fast-tracked the bill and with their majority voted, at 10:30 p.m., to send it to committee so it could be approved before the holiday break.

The Bill, the Fair Representation Act, is an amendment to the Constitution Act of 1867, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act. It sets forward a new formula that would give faster growing provinces more seats in Ottawa while taking none away from provinces with declining populations, therefore adding 30 members of Parliament to a chamber already filled with 308 MPs.

Under Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal's plan, Ontario would get to 15 more seats, British Columbia and Alberta would receive an additional six seats each and Quebec would get three seats to ensure its weight in the Commons doesn't diminish too much.

As HuffPost first reported, the plan was extremely controversial within the Tory caucus. Senior cabinet ministers opposed the idea of giving Quebec more seats, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper held firm. An emergency caucus meeting the day before the bill was announced allowed the airing of many MPs' grievances while Harper argued his formula was the best option to ensure national cohesion.

Some Tories, however, were more concerned their constituents would be up in arms at the never-ending amount of MPs the government seemed to be sanctioning.

The Liberals suggested keeping the number of seats at 308 by moving ridings around to make sure faster growing provinces received more representation while subtracting members from provinces with declining populations, such as Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

A handful of Conservatives privately told the Liberals they supported their plan. Some NDP MPs, whose party supported giving even more MPs to Quebec, backed the Liberal option as well.

"At a time when the government is asking so much sacrifices from Canadians, they are increasing the number of politicians and there is no appetite for that," Stéphane Dion, the Liberal's critic for democratic reform, told The Huffington Post Tuesday.

The Liberals, in fact, were not allowed to table their amendment during the committee hearing because the Conservative chair ruled it out-of-order. Tory MP Joe Preston said only amendments that increased the number of seats could be discussed.

"The Conservatives didn't want to discuss it, because they didn't have the courage to do the right thing," Dion said.

"How many experts came and told them, stop doing that! We are the only democracy that is doing that. We can certainly redistribute the seats to follow the demography but to always increase the House and to have the biggest increase since Confederation in absolute terms -- 30 new MPs it is considerable -- it is a mistake," Dion added.

"The government didn't have the courage to admit that the opposition had a better idea than them."

The timetable for debate was so rushed that no provinces submitted any briefs during Commons' hearings. Nova Scotia asked if it had time to submit something, but was told the one-week timetable had lapsed and that they could try to get their views heard in the Senate.

Quebec, which doesn't support the plan, never presented or had its views heard.

"We have clearly stated in the past that any formula that will determine the distribution of seats must guarantee that Quebec's relative weight of representation in the House of Commons will not be lowered. Any proposition against this principle is not acceptable for Quebec. We are disappointed by the federal government's decision," Gabrielle Tellier, spokeswoman for Quebec's Intergovernmental Affairs minister Yvon Vallières wrote in an email.

The provinces weren't all against the plan. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he was pleased with the Conservatives' proposal and had being lobbying for extra seats for some time.

The House of Provinces, a name commonly given to the Senate, won't be able to represent their views, however. Despite the Liberals' desire for a fulsome study, the Tories are pushing their legislation forward in two days. Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal will defend his bill before senators Wednesday evening and clause-by-clause approval of the bill has been scheduled for Thursday.

What's the rush?

The Tories say the boundary redistribution process is scheduled to start on February 8, and pointing to testimony from Chief Electoral Officer Marc Maynard, among others, they argue that if the changes were made at a later stage the boundary commissions would have to restart their work, generating "additional costs."

What's clear is that the Senate hearings are likely to end just like the House of Commons committee:

The Chair: We don't need to order a reprint of the bill because we haven't amended it. That is our work on Bill C-20.

Some hon. members: Hear, hear!

The Chair: Is there anything else for the good of this committee today? Then the meeting is adjourned.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story pegged the cost of the Tory seat redistribution bill at $14.8 million. The cost of adding 30 new seats to the House of Commons will actually be $19.3 million annually, a Privy Council Office official told senators on the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee Wednesday evening. The official clarified that the $14.8 million figure cited by Democratic Reform Minister Tim Uppal was actually the cost of adding an extra 23 new MPs. The bill will be adding 30 MPs.