The Canadian Independent

Solving the problem of political representation – but only in one dimension

Posted in Elections, Politics, Role of Government by dave on April 2, 2010

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has given Ontario two surprise gifts – 18 additional members of Parliament and an admission that the province was badly treated in previous attempts to overhaul the Commons.

Many of the new MPs will likely be in the GTA, particularly in the suburbs, where Conservatives have been keen to form a strong base in Ontario.

In legislation unveiled on Thursday by Steven Fletcher, Minister of State of Democratic Reform, Ontario was given 18 additional seats – nearly double the 10 that were offered the last time the federal government tried to adjust representation in the Commons.

“Canadians living in Ontario were saying they were being treated differently than Canadians in other faster-growing provinces,” Fletcher said. “We reflected on that and it turns out that there was a case to be made.”

British Columbia has been given seven new seats and Alberta five additional MPs, in further recognition of the need for the fastest-growing provinces to be better served in Parliament.

That’s a gain of 30 seats overall in the Commons, bringing the total up to 338 MPs.

This is a smart move. The idea is to make our political system more representative of the people in Canada, and having some provinces which have a higher number of people per representative than others skews the political balance in the favor of those provinces which are “over-represented” in the House of Commons. Adding MPs to those areas where the population has been growing is one way to deal with this problem.

It helps to deal with the problem of lack of representation of Canadian opinion in the government that we have in society today. However, it doesn’t solve it, and only helps it in one dimension.

With our first-past-the-post electoral system, we can still have governments which hold 70% of the seats in parliament, while only receiving 40% of the votes at election time. This gives  parties a nearly-dictatorial control over Canadian policy, even though they certainly don’t have the support of the population to justify that kind of control. (Think the Chretien era.) Moving to a proportional representation system would help to resolve this issue. Ah! But what about regional representation? Isn’t that important? You could solve that by just having a mixed system, 50% of the seats decided in ridings and 50% from a list.

Whats for dinner?

However, even if we had proportional representation, and everyone’s vote went to elect who they wanted, we still have a basic problem. Politics is a game of competing menus. What do I mean by this? Well at election time, each major parties presents a menu of policy changes they’d like to make. So one party will announce a national daycare program, tax cuts and more money for universities. Another party will announce more funding to healthcare, tax cuts maybe in another area, and more money for the military.

The result is that we choose between 3-4 competing menus, crafted by party insiders, and this is supposed to be representative of what the Canadian people want. And most of the time, once the parties are in office and election time is over, they do many things that weren’t on the menu, simply because the party at that point thinks its appropriate. For instance, proroguing parliament to avoid questions about the treatment of Afghan detainees.

The reality is that politics isn’t representative, its a comfortable paper construct to justify the way our system works, but its not real.

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