Mr. Tom Lukiwski:
Mr. Speaker, my apologies to my hon. colleague. I know she was prepared to give comments, but I look forward to listening to my hon. colleague in approximately 30 minutes from now. I have much respect for her. I met her for the first time during committee work at the procedure and House affairs committee. She is a new member, and I must say that if all new members conduct themselves in the same way the member opposite does, this Parliament will be very effective in years to come. My congratulations to my colleague opposite.
I am very pleased to speak to Bill C-20, the fair representation act. One thing I can say most assuredly is that, with the possible exception of the four independent members formerly known as the Bloc, all members of this place would argue that Canada is the greatest country in the world. One of the distinctions that makes Canada such a marvellous country in which to live is the form of government that we currently have. One of the foundational principles of our government that we currently see enacted in Canada is the concept of representation by population.
This government believes, and it is a fundamental principle of our democratic process, that each Canadian's vote should have the same weight. In other words, a vote in one region of the country should have the same weight as a vote in another region of the country. Unfortunately, that is not the case right now. There are regions of this country that are seriously under-represented. By that I mean there are regions of this country that have a population base far higher than the number of elected representatives that they have. We have recognized this inequity for many months.
In fact, in our last election campaign we made three distinct promises. First, we promised to ensure that the faster-growing provinces, specifically British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, would gain more seats in the House of Commons. Second, we promised that the smaller provinces would be protected in their seat count. Third, we promised to ensure there would be fair and proportional representation to the province of Quebec in relation to its population.
We made those commitments. We plan to act on those commitments. Bill C-20 reflects those commitments.
Currently, a formula that has been in place since 1985 basically deals with how many seats there are in this place. I will get into the technical details in a few moments, but I should probably first address a common complaint that I, and I am sure many other members, have heard about whether we should increase the number of seats in the House of Commons. I have heard from a number of my constituents who have argued very emotionally that we should not increase the number of seats at all, that we have too many seats in the House of Commons right now. Some have suggested that we even reduce the number of members in the House of Commons.
I can understand those arguments, but it is also an argument that is very easy to make without much thought behind it. It is similar to someone saying that a CEO of a particular company makes too much money and that no one should be allowed to make that amount of money. Similarly, people can say there are too many members of Parliament in Canada and that we do not need that many. Whether one tends to argue in favour or against that notion, we have some restrictions constitutionally that would prevent us from reducing the number of seats that we have right now.
Back in 1915 there was a constitutional provision that is known as the Senate floor rule, which says quite clearly that no province should have fewer members in the House of Commons than it has senators.
I put as the case in point the province of Prince Edward Island, which has four senators, and conversely, four members of Parliament. Based simply on population, one would think that is some form of inequity, because the province of Prince Edward Island only has 140,000 people, yet it has four members of Parliament. In other words, each member of Parliament represents approximately 35,000 to 40,000 constituents. Contrast that to my home province of Saskatchewan, where each member of Parliament represents roughly 80,000 constituents. Contrast that to constituencies and ridings in Ontario, where some members represent 170,000 people or more. There is great inequity across Canada.
Since we cannot reduce the number of seats without unanimous consent from the provinces, which I doubt we would get, we believe our only alternative to try to ensure effective representation by population is to increase the number of seats. Since the last census, which was taken 10 years ago, we have seen the population increase in Canada, and it has been significant. We have also seen that the population has increased most dramatically in three particular provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, and most noticeably, Ontario.
If we believe in that foundational principle of representation by population, we then must address the situation of inequity. Our solution, although there will never be a perfect solution, I would argue, is contained in Bill C-20. I believe it is a fair, a principled and a balanced approach to get closer, at least, to representation by population by increasing the number of seats, particularly in those three provinces.
Also contained in Bill C-20 is what we call the representation rule, which provides that any province that is now either equally represented by population or overrepresented by population should never become under-represented when we change the seat count in the House of Commons. I say that because that reflects on Quebec.
Right now, Quebec is slightly overrepresented. Why do I say that? Quebec has roughly 23% of the total population of Canada, yet the number of seats it has in the House, 75, represents about 24% of all the seats. Our bill would ensure that British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario gained extra seats because they have rapidly growing populations, but Quebec, if we left the number at 75 seats, would be under-represented. Therefore, we plan to give three additional seats to the province of Quebec to ensure that it would be equally represented. That is what the representation rule in Bill C-20 contemplates. By giving Quebec three extra seats to bring its total to 78 seats, Quebec would then have a percentage of the seats in this House almost identical to the percentage of population that Quebec has in the country. That is what we mean by equal representation and representation by population.
Specifically, the bill contemplates British Columbia receiving 6 extra seats, Alberta receiving 6 extra seats, and Ontario receiving 15 extra seats. Would that make it absolutely equal in terms of representation by population? No, it would not, but it would come much closer than the situation we have right now. Would we ever achieve a perfect harmony of equal representation? I cannot see it, certainly not in my lifetime. Why? Because the population of Canada and the population from province to province is always a bit of a moving target. We would never achieve total equality, but this bill tends to address the current inequity in the House of Commons by giving more seats to those provinces that have a higher population and have been increasing their population in the last 10 years.
I am going to get into some of the technical details of the bill right now. It is a bit dry. If I see members opposite nodding off, it is not that they do not find my presentation compelling; it is merely that it is a bit of a dry and tedious process to go into the technical aspects of the bill, particularly the formulas.
I want to start with the current formula. I should also explain how we have arrived at that formula, because it was established back in 1985. I told the House about a provision of the Constitution called the Senate floor rule, which was enacted, in 1915. In 1985, there was another constitutional provision that was enacted which is called the grandfather clause. That clause contemplated that no province that was represented in the House of Commons should lose any seats from the 1985 totals.
Consequently, Saskatchewan has 14 seats today in the House of Commons. If we look at the actual representation by population, Saskatchewan should only have 10 seats, but because of the 1985 grandfather clause, no province, whether it be Saskatchewan, Manitoba or some of our Atlantic neighbours, will see a reduction in its seat count in the House of Commons. That is something we have to live with, and that is contemplated in Bill C-20.
Parliamentarians of the day felt that the formula enacted in 1985 was proper and would deal with representation by population effectively, but unfortunately it actually served the purpose of restricting the number of seats in the future. Whether or not the population of our country grew or grew rapidly, the number of seats would be restricted because of the1985 formula.
I will explain that formula.
First they took the population of Canada and divided it by the number of seats in the House of Commons, which was 279 at that time. That final total was what they called the “electoral quotient”.
Then, province by province, they divided the provinces' populations by the electoral quotient and came up with the provincial seat count. They then knew roughly how many seats each province should receive. However, they then had to add in the two constitutional provisions: the Senate floor, which ensured that no province would have fewer seats than the number of senators, and the grandfather clause, which considered and contemplated that no province should lose seats from the current total in 1985.
The end result was that they had an initial seat count, and then a secondary seat count when they took into consideration the grandfather clause and the Senate floor clause. Then, once they had the provincial seat count, they added one seat per territory; that total ended up being the number of seats in the House of Commons.
I think I went through that without seeing too many nodding heads. A couple of people's eyes glazed over, but we will move on.
While that approach was perhaps appropriate in 1985, if we used the same formula today, we would unfortunately come out with a House that was seriously under-representative, and the three provinces that have had rapidly growing populations would be very much affected.
Consequently, we have proposed a new formula. At a later time I will allow my other colleagues to go into a more detailed discussion of what that formula does and what it means, but I can assure everyone that the formula we are proposing will ensure that we are much closer to representation by population, now and in the future. It does not restrict the number of seats in the House based on the 1985 formula; rather, it is a formula designed to reflect the number of seats that may be needed, both now and in the future, based on population.
The first thing we need to do is recognize that if we want true equity in this place, we need to accept and adopt Bill C-20. Is it perfect? No. Is it the closest thing to equal representation that we have seen in many decades? Yes, I would argue that it is.
Following that, however, and on the assumption that Bill C-20 will pass this place, we also have to deal with the second part of the equation, which is how to redraw the various boundaries. It is one thing to say we will have 30 extra seats in the House of Commons, but it is another thing to say where those seats will be held.
The equal boundary representation act is also included in this bill. It would provide that each province, after we determine the number of seats in each province, would establish a boundaries commission whose job would be to consult with stakeholders, provinces, and other affected people, including members of Parliament who wish to make submissions, and within a set period of time to come up with a new boundary map for each province.
The whole process, from the consultation process to the final product of redrawn boundaries, should be done roughly within the year.
Of course, those boundaries then have to be examined. MPs and others in Parliament, including committees, would have a chance to examine the boundaries presented. In that fashion, we should be able to come to a solution that would allow the four provinces I mentioned, the three fastest-growing provinces plus the province of Quebec, to have not only new seats in place, but new seats with completely new and freshly drawn boundaries.
I should also point out that one of the things that would happen during the boundaries commission examination would be an opportunity for new names for these various ridings, because not only would there be completely new ridings, I am sure, presented by the electoral commissions, but there would also be hybrids. By that I mean that certain constituencies we have now would have similar boundaries, but instead of having one member, they might have two members.
In conclusion, I believe that Bill C-20, while not absolutely perfect, is the closest thing to equal representation by population that we have seen in many years. It would construct a plan and a formula to ensure that provinces now and in the future would have the representation they deserve.
I think it is patently unfair that in the current situation there are constituencies across Canada whose members of Parliament are representing over twice as many constituents as other members of Parliament. We have to come to a closer balance of rep by pop. I believe Bill C-20 would do that. It would do that effectively. I would ask all members to give it support. I look forward to the continuing debate.
Ms. Alexandrine Latendresse (Louis-Saint-Laurent, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, today we have the opportunity to debate Bill C-20, the Fair Representation Act.
This bill has a history. It dates back to the 39th Parliament and since then it has undergone some revisions and changes. As it currently stands, Bill C-20 illustrates the Conservative government's desire to make some constructive changes to the makeup of this House. The proposals in Bill C-20 also seek to enhance the effectiveness of democracy in Canada and improve representation.
However, what the bill is proposing does not appear to have been well received. It did not take long for reactions from the provincial legislatures to reach Ottawa, and Quebec dismissed the Conservative government's proposals right away. Ontario and British Columbia also raised some legitimate concerns regarding this bill. This response is significant, as it illustrates how poorly balanced the government's approach was regarding the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons.
The provinces reacted as they did because they felt that the initiative was confused and saw that the government was trying to satisfy them with a pittance. It has come up with practically random figures to which the Conservatives are attaching expressions like “fair representation” and “proportional democratic weight”. The very terms for what we are debating are flying around in every direction. The provinces understand very clearly that there is some confusion and that when there is confusion, there is some flexibility and room for negotiation.
This feeling of confusion stems primarily from the successive changes that have been made to the bill over time and that reveal considerable hesitation on the part of the government. After all, at the outset, Quebec was not given any additional seats. The government sensed the danger, however, and had the good sense to change its mind. I am sure my colleagues can imagine how the Quebec National Assembly would have reacted had the government not changed its mind.
The Minister of Industry, the member for Mégantic—L'Érable, said: “This bill will move every Canadian province toward representation by population.” This remark was repeated by the parliamentary secretary who just spoke.
I would like to know if the government plans to use this criterion alone for the new seat allocation. If that is the case, it demonstrates an approach that is narrow in vision and not very serious. In fact, strict representation by population is certainly not the only criterion that should be applied when seats are redistributed. It would be a denial of all the things that make Canada what it is. We need only examine all the clauses used to calculate the number of seats to support that. It seems that the minister is denying what is protecting Prince Edward Island's four seats.
The NDP will stand with the provinces that want us to continue fine-tuning Bill C-20. We acknowledge that the government wants to take action and get it right, but we believe that there is too much hesitation on the government's part and therefore that there is room to negotiate.
I am very pleased to be able to debate this bill. The NDP believes that there is a consensus in the House about the importance of fair and intelligent reform of our democratic institutions. After all, we have everything to gain with a more representative Canada.
I am in federal politics because I am convinced that Canada's strength is rooted in its diversity. The problem of fair representation of the provinces in the House comes up regularly because Canada is changing and its Parliament must reflect these changes. This issue seems simple, but is unexpectedly complex. It also stirs up passions and triggers all sorts of hidden emotions.
Canada is more than just the sum of the 10 provinces and 3 territories. Since confederation, two visions of the country have often clashed. These two visions refer to very different and almost opposite sensibilities that we have tried to reconcile as best we can since the beginning of the federal experience. That is the basis for John Saul's idea of a civilization that compromises. As my Canadian history professor used to say, Canada is a community that is always fraught with bickering. As a Quebecker, I know what I am talking about.
The first of these two visions, considers provincial authority as an end in itself. It focuses on the provincial legislature, local distinctiveness, local cultural heritage and, in the case of Quebec, language. Of course the emotional attachment to Canada remains present and real, but confederation is clearly perceived as a supranational entity.
That is clearly the case in Quebec. While it is well known, it is sometimes misunderstood in other parts of Canada: in Quebec, ties to the state are twofold. That is completely normal. Quebec preciously guards the memory of its past and still feels the presence of the other state it once was: New France. Quebec's specificity is so important that this government even took the initiative to give it the status of a nation within Confederation.
Quebec is not the only province in this situation. Take Newfoundland, for example. It was the last province to join Confederation. It had its own currency, flag and national anthem, and its people are still very conscious of their common origin.
Some might even say that Newfoundland has its own language. It joined Confederation 80 years after the founding provinces, after a long history as an independent British dominion. Consequently, Newfoundland had the time to develop a feeling of national allegiance that Ottawa, as a distant and mainland capital, cannot shake, even after 60 years.
I would also like to mention the more subtle case of the Northwest Territories. Northerners live a common frontier experience in a tough environment that is both beautiful and remote. The ethnic balance between aboriginals and non-aboriginals has created a distinct type of country with its own ethnically diverse culture that is incredibly dynamic.
I could go on and on because this is such a fascinating topic, but what I am trying to express is that this vision requires one essential element: balance. When balance is maintained, this decentralist vision does not call into question the relevance of this federal plan and encourages cultural and creative development across our country. The NDP, which is so committed to diversity, is very sensitive to the differences that exist, to varying degrees, in each province.
There is the opposite, highly centralist vision, which sees the federal government as responsible for building the Canadian nation. This vision is behind the notion of nation building. It is a state of mind that promotes unity within the country by focusing on all that is similar at the expense of all that is different. The Constitution Act, 1867, seemed to favour that vision of Canada, but that vision took a hit during the constitutional debates of the 1980s and 1990s. It was, however, the initial cause of sweeping Canada-wide achievements and it is dear to many of our constituents whose values are reflected in it.
It is simplistic to divide the provinces between these two visions. This vision has its roots in the British imperialism that Canada was part of. The Constitution of 1867 was drafted in that vein and we can say without a doubt that Canada as we know it today is a legacy of that time.
Ontario, the most populous province and the most under-represented in this House, has its cultural and political origins in the British colonial era. It is completely justified. The Prairies also find a common cultural foundation in that history. They were constituted as the logical next step in the federal project and steeped in British patriotism. Canada has its history and we do not seek to diminish it.
The Conservative Party clearly favours a more centralist plan. For this government, the federal government and its institutions have the responsibility to build this country. Canada, as the Conservatives see it, has to be moulded from the same clay. Differences have to give way to common elements. It is the Canada of “The Maple Leaf Forever”. Their interpretation is as old as the country itself and meets come people's expectations. However, those who share the decentralist vision feel there is a lack of finesse in these democratic reform bills that the Conservative government is introducing in this House. They all have one thing in common: they all attempt to make fundamental changes to the parliamentary institutions without ever having to touch the Constitution.
Bill C-20 is nothing but a weak attempt at giving this House the semblance of fair representation of the provinces that make up Canada. Bill C-20 is just another attempt at doing something when it is clear that no one really knows what to do. The NDP has a vision. Our party has a deeper understanding of what constitutes Canada's wealth and we want to move forward in respect and collegiality.
For example, the NDP explicitly recognized Quebec's distinct nature in Bill C-312, introduced by my colleague, the member for Compton—Stanstead. In short, the NDP proposed that we keep the previous formula for calculating how seats are allocated in the House of Commons, while still guaranteeing that Quebec would retain its political weight of 24.35% within the House, the percentage it had when it was recognized as a nation in this House.
As much as we acknowledge that Bill C-20 is a step forward compared to the earlier versions, there is still a lot of work to be done before it will be acceptable. I condemn the fact that the Conservative government does not have enough strength to take action. At first glance, this so-called strong mandate is not translating into a willingness and a vision to truly move Canada forward. It takes guts, initiative and courage to turn words into action.
Yet when it comes to petty politics and pitting the provinces against each other, this government is one of the best. For proof, we need only look at the provinces' reactions to Bill C-20. With this government, it is one step forward, two steps back.
The problem is clear. the provinces want a number of seats that corresponds as closely as possible to their demographic weight. Since Quebec was recognized as a nation within Canada, it is asking to retain its weight at 24.35%.
The NDP is of the opinion that these two requests are fair and must be defended. The NDP believes that, in order for Canada to work better, it is absolutely necessary that the provinces and their unique characters be represented as accurately as possible. Only the NDP can do this because we have a much better understanding of what Canada wants. Our vision is to make Canada a true success, to make it the best country in the world. We want to debate the role of our parliamentary institutions with respect, rigour and, most importantly, a listening ear. This quality is essential.
The basic problems with the representation of the provinces in the House of Commons, namely the chronic under-representation of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia and the concrete recognition through action of the Quebec nation, are far from irreconcilable. However, there are still concerns. The fact that the Ontario premier is not hesitating to speak out shows his concern about this bill, which must be fair to Ontarians. The same goes for the premier of British Columbia, who is asking for no fewer than the seven seats that were provided for in a previous draft of the bill.
The Quebec Minister responsible for the Reform of Democratic Institutions feels the same way. He believes that Quebec's political weight in the House of Commons should not be decreased. In 2006, this House unanimously adopted a motion recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada. The constitutional consequences of that decision are unclear. The NDP wants to maintain Quebec's weight in the House of Commons.
Given its status as a nation within a united Canada, Quebec has a special place and we must reflect that fact. All these examples clearly bring one undeniable fact into focus: the provinces are asking the government to listen to them. If the Conservative government continues to turn a deaf ear, it will soon be perceived within the federation of Canada as a steamroller that has little regard for the provinces. First, it was the Senate; now, it is the House of Commons. A trend is becoming painfully clear.
Not only do we need to move away from the verbal rhetoric of simply stating that Canada is the best country in the world, we also need to take real action to prove it. We need to do justice to Canada's diverse, complex character. Our parliamentary institutions need to reflect that. Openness to compromise and negotiation is essential.
I would like to know the point of undertaking reform if it is only done in half measures. In the wake of a slew of democratic deficits, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform is suggesting that we merely apply a band-aid solution. Similar to the arbitrary and constitutionally questionable Senate reform this government wants to implement, this addition of seats to the House of Commons only masks the issues. And when it comes right down to it, no one will be happy.
Why does this government seem unable to successfully reform this country's parliamentary institutions? As the NDP has clearly stated, the first logical step is to consult provincial leaders. We are still at the bill stage and sensible improvements can still be made. But there is still one quality that is painfully lacking in this government: the ability to listen, the decency to listen to the provinces and other interest groups. This is not simply a trivial, procedural issue. We need to ensure that each Canadian citizen has the assurance that the House of Commons is a solid representation of the Canadian reality.
It is quite ironic that, because they have their blinders on, the Conservatives are unable to fully grasp Canada's complexity and diversity. This goes far beyond the simple addition of seats to the House of Commons, as the Conservative government is proposing. Creating more cynicism in and contributing to the alienation of the Canadian people with regard to federal politics is the last thing we want to introduce as legislation in Parliament. But it seems that the government's priority is exactly that.
The formula used to calculate how seats in the House of Commons are allocated is a reflection of Canada's diversity and complex nature. The grandfather and Senate floor clauses are proof of that. The idea of democratic representation goes far beyond these mathematical formulas, but we must look even further than that. The solution being proposed by the Conservative government does not address any of these demands. This bill leaves a number of provinces fundamentally under-represented in this House and it decreases the electoral weight of the Quebec nation.
However, all of these changes can be made, but the Conservatives do not seem to know what to do. To start, they offered some crumbs, then a little bit of meat, but at the end of the day, everyone ends up disappointed. That explains the NDP's disappointment with Bill C-20. The formula used to calculate the seats allocated to each province was changed from what the government presented in the last version of this bill, which was introduced in the previous Parliament. That was already different from the formula that is used now, which dates back to 1985.
I would like to focus on this subject for a moment because I have a hard time following this government's parliamentary gymnastics and acrobatics. First of all, Bill C-12, which was introduced in the House during the previous Parliament, changed the redistribution formula by changing the electoral quotient by which a province's population is divided.
The preamble of Bill C-12 states, and I quote, “Whereas the national average population of electoral districts at the 40th general election was approximately 108,000 persons...”. That is how it was determined that the electoral quotient, in order to divide the province's population—before applying special clauses—would be 108,000. They simply speculated at the time, with the help of estimates from Statistics Canada, about what the redistributed seats might look like using that formula. So this created certain expectations among the provinces. It is not surprising that Bill C-12 never passed.
Then comes along the current bill on fair representation. The Conservative camp has simply shuffled the cards to come up with a new formula for allocating seats to the provinces. Here is where the confusion begins. Here is what Bill C-20 says about the new electoral quotient to be used:
|| Whereas the electoral quotient for the readjustment that follows the completion of the 2011 decennial census should be 111,166, that number being the average population of the electoral districts on July 1, 2001, which was determined by using the estimate of the population of each province as at that date, multiplied by the average of the rates of population growth of the provinces.
If I understand correctly, the new electoral quotient comes from a mathematical formula that comes from an estimate of the current population that dates back to July 1, 2001. Two questions immediately come to mind. First of all, why use population estimates that are over 10 years old? Why the mathematical acrobatics? Is it because the statistics from back then are more reliable than today's? And second, why use the average rate of increase in the population of the provinces? As we have heard repeatedly in this House, the rates of increase in the population of each province are not all the same.
Ontario is growing faster than any other province. So why this levelling out? How can the government justify creating expectations among the provinces with Bill C-12, only to turn around and crush them so deviously and cunningly with Bill C-20? Did the government really expect the provinces to fall for this trick?
The issue of representation in the House of Commons is complex and goes beyond simple representation by population, a factor that is very important nonetheless. The Supreme Court issued an interesting opinion in this regard. On June 6, 1991, it concluded in The Attorney General for Saskatchewan v. Roger Carter that factors like geography, history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of the Canadian social mosaic.
This means that the bill to redistribute seats in the House of Commons must take other factors into account. No matter what this government says, this exercise in effective representation is not irreconcilable with equal representation of the provinces that have had significant population growth. In short, we must continue to work on this bill, listen to the provinces and arrive at a solution that benefits everyone.
I move, seconded by the member for Welland,
|| That the motion be amended by deleting all of the words after the word “that” and substituting the following:
||this House decline to give second reading to Bill C-20, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act and the Canada Elections Act, because it:
||(a) adds and allocates new seats in the House of Commons in a way that would increase regional tensions in Canada;
||(b) fails to take into account the need for a nation-building approach to changes in Canada's democratic representation; and
||(c) ignores the principle unanimously adopted in this place that the Quebecois represent a nation within a united Canada.
Hon. Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise here in the House to state the Liberal Party's position on Bill C-20, whose main goal is to rebalance the allocation of seats in the House of Commons, taking the needs of those provinces that are growing quickly into account.
The principle of provincial representation by population in the House of Commons is enshrined in our Constitution. Paragraph 42(1)a of the Constitution Act, 1982 stipulates that any amendments to this principle must have the consent of Parliament and the legislative assemblies of at least seven provinces representing at least 50% of the Canadian population: we know that as the 7-50 formula.
We should all be proud that our Constitution formally confirms this principle of representation by population. It is a fundamental principle of democracy.
Alas, nothing is ever so simple in our lively federation. In Canada, we tweak representation by population to take another factor into account. We take great care to assure the political representativeness of the provinces that are in absolute demographic decline, they are losing people, or in relative decline, their population is growing at a slower pace than the Canadian average. We are so careful about this that we are one of the federations where the distribution of seats between constitutional entities is the least numerically representative of its population.
We even established a floor below which a province's representation must not fall: no province can ever have fewer members than it does senators.
The Senate floor clause has been in the Constitution since 1915, in section 51A. It can also be found in subsection 41(b) of the Constitution Act, 1982. In order to amend this section of the Constitution Act, 1982, all members of the federation must give unanimous consent.
Hence, Prince Edward Island has four senators according to the Constitution, so it has four members of Parliament, whatever the size of its population.
The four Atlantic provinces cannot have less than 30 seats in the House because that is their number of senators. This legislation would give them eight seats more than what strict proportional representation would give them.
In a 1987 ruling, the B.C. Supreme Court stated that “the principle of representation ‘prescribed’ by the Constitution does not require perfect mathematical representation...”. A year later, the B.C. Court of Appeal said that what must be preserved “is the principle, not a specific formula”.
In other words, Parliament has some leeway in how it applies the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces when dealing with the provinces that are in relative decline. However, that leeway has its limits. Parliament cannot run afoul of this principle. That would be unconstitutional.
Today, we are close to the limit. This is what the most recent Statistics Canada pre-census data shows. In Ontario, there is 1 MP for every 126,000 people; in New Brunswick, 1 for 75,500 people. As we can see, the numbers need to be re-balanced.
This will be the third time the Conservative government tries to perform this rebalancing act. In its first attempt in 2007, the government proposed adding seats for British Columbia and Alberta but left Ontario almost completely out. When Premier McGuinty objected, the federal minister for democratic reform at the time insulted him by calling him the small man of Confederation.
In its second attempt last year, the federal government ignored Quebec, making it the only province with a relative population decline to be under-represented.
This time, the bill introduced by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform on October 27, would give British Columbia and Alberta an additional six seats and Ontario an additional 15. Quebec would receive three seats to better reflect its demographic weight. As for the other six provinces, they would continue to be over-represented
One serious drawback of this plan is that it would increase the number of MPs from 308 to 338. I am sure nobody in the minister's riding is asking for that. A 30 seat hike is not something to be taken lightly. Canadians are concerned about the added cost of such an inflationary measure.
The government wants to slash the civil service and gorge itself with more politicians. That is nonsense. In these days of financial restraint, Parliament must take the lead.
As our Liberal leader recently insisted, the number of MPs cannot keep growing forever. We would quickly reach a much higher MP to population ratio than is the norm in other democracies.
We must not forget that in our decentralized federation there are many pressing issues, such as schools and hospitals, that federal members of Parliament do not have to address.
In the United States, a country almost 10 times as populous as ours, the house of representatives is limited to 435 members. Why not follow its example and limit the number of seats in the House to its present value? Nothing can stop Parliament from doing that.
We do need to rebalance the House's seat allocation in order to address the needs of the provinces with strong population growth, maintain proportionate representation of the other provinces and protect those with smaller populations in keeping with the Senate clause. It is possible to do that without raising the total number of MPs. It is doable. We would have no problem doing that, so why not do it?
Therefore, I look forward to debating this issue in the House.
By introducing this new bill, the government is committed to allowing members and senators, together with the best experts, to thoroughly study the repercussions of the bill.
Democracy itself is at stake and I am firmly convinced that the government and the opposition should definitely be able to vote together on a bill with respect to this issue. Because, despite our political differences, we are all democrats in this House.
It is possible that we will come to an agreement. The government only has to rebalance the numbers, but this time keeping the number of seats to 308.
Having said that, I am not sure that we will be able to obtain the support of the NDP, which believes, because Parliament recognized that Quebec forms a distinct nation within Canada, that Quebec's representation in the House of Commons should be frozen at its current level in perpetuity.
I believe, as do a number of constitutional experts, that Parliament does not have the constitutional authority to infringe to this extent on the principle of proportional representation without the support of at least seven provinces representing at least 50% of Canada's population. It is important to respect the Constitution.
We still have a lot of work to do on this bill.
I would like to take this opportunity to ask the government and the minister, once again, to do the right thing with regard to its ill-conceived Senate reform plan. What good would it be to Canadians if we improve the House of Commons but make the Senate completely dysfunctional? This Senate reform plan is harmful and even dangerous, since it will weaken our entire Parliamentary system, including the House of Commons.
Why is this bill dangerous for our democratic decision-making mechanisms? Because, by pitting two elected houses against each other, without a constitutional mechanism to resolve their differences, it would create a state of institutional paralysis similar to what our American neighbours are experiencing.
What is the government thinking? What do the Prime Minister and the minister have in mind with their ill-conceived Senate reform project? Do they really want to import into Canada the same kind of ritual opposition and institutional paralysis we have seen in the United States and Mexico? Do we not have enough challenges here in Canada that we also need to hinder our decision-making processes in such a senseless counter-productive manner?
Would the government tell British Columbians, Albertans and the rest of the country what logic underlies its decision to shortchange them in the Senate while, at the same time, it is proposing increasing the number of seats in the House for British Columbia and Alberta?
Why do the minister and the Prime Minister, two Albertans, want to hurt their province? Do they not understand how detrimental it would be to B.C. and Alberta to end up with an elected and powerful Senate where these two provinces would be grossly under-represented with only six senators each, while some provinces have 10 with a population four or six times smaller?
The government knows that an elected upper chamber would carry much more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form. What is the government's interest in creating such a mess for those two provinces?
How is it that, when it comes to adding seats in the House, the government seems to want to respect the spirit and the letter of the Constitution but, when it comes to Senate reform, this same government is ignoring the Constitution?
Why is the government being so inconsistent? Why the double standard?
Where is the logic? Where is the fairness? Changing the character of the Senate must not be done through a process that excludes the provinces.
Why does the government want to impose an unconstitutional Senate reform plan that will create pointless legal disputes between the provinces at a time when, on the contrary, all our governments should be working together to address the many economic and other problems that are upsetting Canadians and causing them concern?
The Liberal opposition intends, as always, to be constructive and thorough. In the past, we asked the government to amend its bills to make changes to the House of Commons since they were ill conceived, and it listened. Perhaps, the government would agree to once again listen to us, to the benefit of all Canadians, by seeking to achieve the same objectives with Bill C-20 without increasing the number of seats in the House.
We are also asking the government to think about our objections to its Senate reform plan, a plan that is irrational, unconstitutional and dangerous.
Clearly, it would make no sense at all for the government to undo with one hand what it wants to do with the other.