BRAMPTON, Ont. – The Harper government’s third attempt at legislation to add more seats to the House of Commons was better received Thursday than its previous bills, but no one was saying the Tories had struck the right balance just yet.
The federal government announced it would introduce a bill to give Canada’s fastest growing provinces, and Quebec, more seats in Parliament in time for the 2015 election.
The legislation will give 15 additional seats to Ontario, six more to British Columbia, six more to Alberta and three additional seats to Quebec, said Tim Uppal, minister of state for democratic reform.
“It will address the representation gap by moving Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia closer to representation by population. Quebec will receive three new seats, which will be proportionate to its share of the population,” said Uppal.
“The legislation also fulfills our platform commitment to prevent Quebec from becoming under-represented relative to its population. “
Uppal made the announcement in the suburban Toronto riding of Brampton-West, the most populous electoral district in Canada with 170,420 people – more than five times the number in the Prince Edward Island-Charlottetown riding.
The Opposition New Democrats, who introduced their own version of the bill to expand the number of MPs earlier this month, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper has bungled the process so far.
“This is an important nation building exercise, but Stephen Harper pits region against region, refusing to acknowledge that a balance must exist between representation by population and recognition of Quebec’s important role within Canada,” said interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel.
“It is really important to have a fair representation by population for everybody in Canada.”
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the Commons cannot keep expanding to meet population growth or “we’re going to be squeezed out of this building,” and suggested there be a reduction in seats with a maximum cap of 300.
“We ought to be able to divide up 300 recognizing the principles that representation by population is important, recognizing the needs of other provinces is important, particularly, though, also recognizing the considerations that we need to have to Quebec’s position in the federation,” said Rae.
While Thursday’s announcement promises more seats than some expected, it falls short of the 18 spots Ontario was slated to receive under the previous bill that died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved earlier this year.
“The previous bill that was introduced was based on outdated population data,” said Uppal. “This bill is updated.”
Ontario, with 39 per cent of the population, will have 36 per cent of the seats in the Commons under the proposed legislation.
Quebec wants a guarantee that it will continue to hold 24 per cent of the chamber’s seats. It currently has 75 of the 308 seats, and having 78 of 338 seats would give Quebec 23.28 per cent of MPs, equal to its percentage of the federal population.
The Bloc Quebecois attacked the bill on several fronts, including the unnecessary cost to taxpayers of creating new jobs for politicians in an era of budget cuts, and said the Harper government has left Quebec with less seats than warranted.
“The Conservative government’s refusal to recognize the need for Quebec to have a unique status with regard to its political weight shows that the Harper government attaches little value to the recognition of Quebec as a nation,” said Louis Plamondon, the interim Bloc Québécois parliamentary leader.
“Again we see that the Harper government’s priorities are dictated by partisan interests: this bill will benefit Ontario and the Western provinces.”
Ontario Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid said the province was hoping for more than 15 additional seats, but does see the increase as “positive” and will review the federal legislation.
“We’re not getting as many seats as we hoped to get, but at the same time we recognize that we’re getting more,” said Duguid.
“We’ll have to make a determination if we feel that this is in the best interests of Ontarians, and that’s really what’s going to drive our response.”
The expanded House of Commons will increase the cost of a general election by $11.5 million, and increase Parliament’s operating budget by $14.8-million a year, including salaries and office budgets. There will be no additional costs incurred until the 2015 election.
Uppal said the government wants to ensure population growth is factored in accurately when allocating seats in the future.
“The Fair Representation Act is a principled, nationally applicable update to the formula allocating seats to the House of Commons,” he said.
“The bill increases seat counts for these provinces both now and in the future by ensuring that population growth is more accurately factored into the House of Commons seat allocations.”
Normally, the seating in the House of Commons is adjusted after each census using a complex formula adopted in 1985, but the Conservatives have said that formula penalized some regions.
New Brunswick Premier David Alward said he’s concerned about the ability of smaller provinces to influence national decisions as the Commons expands without giving them extra representation.
Just where and how the House of Commons seats will be distributed within the provinces is a separate process that takes place after the number of seats per province is established, and are determined by independent non-partisan electoral boundary commissions.