John Robson: Instead of Bickering Over Seat Distribution, Make Parliament Serve Canadians Better

John Robson: Instead of Bickering Over Seat Distribution, Make Parliament Serve Canadians Better
The House of Commons chamber in Ottawa in a file photo. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
John Robson

With a new census in the bag, Elections Canada has unveiled its plan to redistribute parliamentary seats to a cheery national chorus of “it’s not fair to my region.” But don’t worry. It’s also bad for democracy.

The essential idea is that as some regions gain population relative to others, they should get more seats, except they shouldn’t. Quebec must never lose seats because it might take its marbles and go home, a vital principle of self-government. The Atlantic provinces must never lose seats because they send many Liberals to Parliament, ditto. The West must not get big because it’s full of truckers and other deplorable rednecks. And journalists already write “seat-rich Ontario” and “vote-rich Ontario” far too often during elections. But everyone must complain petulantly all the time.

Canada also has odd constitutional rules we can’t change, even if we wouldn’t adopt them today. Like no province can have fewer MPs than senators, so PEI has four MPs, one per 41,920 people, while person-rich Ontario has roughly 116,000 to one. And there’s a 1985 law that no province can ever lose seats, quasi-constitutional because it favours Quebec.

Now, for starters, the simple expedient of adding parliamentary seats would let us achieve proportionality without diminishing anyone’s seat total. But should we?

As usual, you can’t decide how to achieve your goals until you figure out what they are. Critics of uneven ridings, like proportional representation zealots, often assume without discussion that the purpose of a legislature is to incarnate the popular will. But some of us cling to an older view that power corrupts, including electorates, so the purpose of a Parliament, Congress, House of Assembly, etc., is for the people we elect to hold “the government” in check, traditionally the executive but increasingly the judiciary. And it’s not obvious that proportional representation, of the national vote total or equally sized ridings, helps us do so.

On the contrary, it tends to empower the “tyranny of the majority” via those politicians skilled at creating the impression that “the people” support them. Whereas the American electoral college, and two elected senators from many diverse states, help ensure that legislative proposals must be acceptable to all sorts of ideological and sociological minorities.

I realize things aren’t going well there at the moment. But in principle, the impossibility of ramming through anything and everything by piling up votes in key constituencies forces politicians to seek broad consensus on important proposals. And because such agreement is rare, many things just can’t be done, especially not in arrogant haste. Which limits government.

The strange and marvellous evolution of the British Parliament had created an even more complex and eccentric riding-by-riding mix of everything from universal suffrage to “potwallopers.” Some universities had MPs. Some ridings had several. Dunwich had two for centuries after being basically washed into the sea.

It was easy to ridicule, including the unfairness of reactionary landowners appointing many MPs. And you’d never create it from scratch. But the successful push to extend and homogenize the franchise in the 19th century had unforeseen consequences. Well, not entirely unforeseen. The “Iron Duke” was opposed, while novelist, commentator, and MP Samuel Warren called the First Reform Act “the great Bill For Giving Everybody Everything.”

I could argue that Britain had better government before these reforms. It certainly had a lot less. So while I doubt we’re going to revive “rotten boroughs” like Old Sarum, we can ask how we’d revise parliamentary seating if we wanted the legislature revitalized as a check on the executive. Which brings me back to adding MPs.

Again the populist mindset recoils. Boo. Down with politicians. We want to elect people who will give us stuff. Hence Mike Harris’s vulgarian “Fewer Politicians Act.” To which my retort was, why not just one? Why not elect a Napoleon III every four years?

Answer: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. We want a lot of politicians so, as Madison said, ambition will check ambition. Instead, in Canada today we have too few legislators, so cheap devices like bloated cabinets full of nonsensical “parliamentary secretaries” let the executive turn most legislators into pampered (if also harried) lapdogs. In Britain, a Commons nearly double the size of ours is distinctly unruly. Ask Boris Johnson.

We should also give politicians more pay and smaller pensions, to reward performance over supine longevity. And create far larger budgets for staff, so they can be better informed and less harried. Fewer constituents per MP also encourages paying attention to every voter instead of just playing to your tribe locally as well as nationally. And if you care, it gives every jurisdiction many MPs without creating unfairness between or within provinces.

So we need a “Less Government Through More Politicians Act.” Unless we enjoy bickering pointlessly.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”
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