In Praise of (Lots) More MPs -

In Praise of (Lots) More MPs


The government introduced legislation today to increase the size of the House of Commons, giving more MPs to Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. As our Wherry pointed out yesterday, this is an attempt to bring a better sense of rep by pop to the House, and mitigate the disenfranchising effects that have come with the increasingly skewed makeup of the people’s chamber. (Aaron linked to the Mowatt Centre’s reports on federal representation, but they mostly second the conclusions drawn by Sujit Choudhry and Michael Pal in this excellent paper.

Enhancing rep by pop is, on its own, good enough reason to add more MPs to the Commons. Pissing off the Bloc is, arguably, also a good enough reason to do anything. But there’s another benefit that is in many ways far more salutory, which is that sending more politicians to Ottawa will probably make for more accountable government.

That seems paradoxical, but the main problem with Ottawa isn’t that there are too many MPs, it is that there are too few. As Ned Franks wrote over 20 years ago, the tendency in Canada is for an entrenched and professional executive to find itself facing a transient and amateur Commons. If anything, the problem is worth than ever; if there is one thing we’ve learned over things like the fight for the detainees documents it is that there just aren’t enough opposition MPs who know how to seriously manipulate the parliamentary apparatus to their advantage.

At the same time (as I think Coyne noted around here somewhere last week) a bigger House means more safe seats, which –as in Britain —  means more MPs who don’t owe anything to their party. It will also mean that more MPs will have to accept that they will never make it into cabinet. Becoming a competent and professional member of parliament will become an increasingly legitimate career choice.

Lots of people think that party discipline is the main reason MPs have no power. In fact, the opposite is true: Party discipline is so strong because MPs have no independent power. A bigger House will help restore the historic balance.

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In Praise of (Lots) More MPs

  1. As long as most voters vote for the party, and not the individual, and as long as the major parties require all nominations be approved by the party leader, there are no safe seats. However, an MP turfed from his party's nomination for supporting a measure widely popular in his/her constituency (or not supporting an unpopular measure) might have a decent chance of re-election as an independent.

    It would be more effective, however, to somehow give the local constituency associations full power over nominations.

    • Better still – now that we have a permanent voters list, add party registration and let nominations be run by Elections Canada.

      • Yes — party registration and an Elections Canada-run primary system would allow us to have local MPs who are free from party leadership control.

        A good thing. Lets new blood into the system, and protects people who "vote their riding".

    • The Single Transferable Vote system that BC considered allows voters to still vote (mostly) for their party and also pass judgment on the specific individuals who have been nominated by whatever process the parties choose for themselves.

  2. As proposed, the House changes reduce – but do not come anywhere close to eliminating – the under-representation of ON, BC and AB. Respectively, they will remain (post the proposed House expansion) under represented by 7,4 and 2 seats. To hold the small provinces at current seat levels and fully address the ON, AB and BC shortfalls, the House would have to expand to 357 seats (if I've done my math correctly).

    So, question: Why is no party proposing we do just that? Now?

    • We can only tell you if you've done your math correctly if you show us your math.

    • I get a slightly higher answer than 357, but maybe we aren't using the same population numbers and perhaps also treating the territories differently.

      However, there's a huge flaw with that methodology: while ON, BC and AB would get fair representation, with respect to other provinces as a whole, these other provinces would still be treated unequally with respect to each other. Specifically, Quebec would become severely underrepresented. (In fact, with 75 seats, Quebec becomes underrepresented with respect to the ROC if the House goes over 323 seats, which is the case under Bill C-12. Never mind the Bloc, even a reasonable Quebecer would be up in arms.) To fix that, you have to give seats to Quebec, as well as compensating ones to ON, BC and AB. But then NS and MB become underrepresented, and so on.

      Bottom line: as long as PEI gets 4 seats, we need a House with close to 1,000 seats to ensure equal representation. And miraculously, our parties have retained enough common sense to reject that idea!

      • Wish I knew how to post my spreadsheet. I used 2009 pop numbers, and included the territories in the calc. Left all provs. except ON, AB, BC and QC unchanged and just tweaked the seats for those four until I got every prov (and territory) and territory to within +/- 1% of their pop. share. Results:

        ON from 106 to 133
        QC from 75 to 79
        AB from 28 to 37
        BC from 36 to 45

        • I see. The key in what you're saying is the "+/- 1%" part. With a 357-seat House, this means that you're allowing ON, AB, BC and QC to remain underrepresented by 3-4 seats each. Doing so indeed avoids getting MB and NS underrepresented, and setting off a chain of size of increases up to more than 900 members. However, it does not full fix these provinces' underrepresentation, and may exacerbate it for AB and BC! I explain why below.

          I took the Jan. 1, 2010 population estimates from Statistics Canada and applied your method. Population shares are ON 38.7%, QC 23.2%, BC 13.2%, AB 10.9%. I found the following seats and seat shares for the 4 provinces:
          ON 136 (37.9%)
          QC 80 (22.3%)
          BC 44 (12.3%)
          AB 36 (10.0%)
          Total 359

          Using your seat numbers (I don't think the population growth accounts for all our differences – perhaps we rounded differently), it'd be: ON 37.3%, QC 22.1%, BC 12.6%, AB 10.4%. Note that ON is 1.4% short of its population share and QC is 1.1% short.

          Then, using the same Jan. 1 population estimates, I applied Bill C-12:
          ON 122 (36.2%)
          QC 75 (22.3%)
          BC 42 (12.5%)
          AB 35 (10.4%)
          Total 337

          Thus, relative to Bill C-12, my interpretation of your method helps with respect to ON's underrepresentation, but actually exacerbates AB and BC's! The numbers you got help (but less) ON, are neutral toward AB and BC, and exacerbate QC's underrepresentation.

          Either way, those 20-22 extra seats don't fully address ON, AB and BC's underrepresentation: they reduce ON's, but don't help with AB and BC's (and might make them worse off).

          Bottom line: Once you start having to add seats to QC, gains to equality of representation from adding extra seats become minimal, since ON, QC, BC and AB account for over 86% of the population. So for every 10 seats you add, 8.6 are merely those provinces' fair share, and thus only 1.4 serve to fix representation. That's why no one's proposing a method under which the House size increases so much that QC would get over 75 seats.

  3. I completely agree that a bigger House is better. I don't have much time for the argument that more MPs will cost taxpayers more money – it's true, but an extra $30 million or so is pocket change when we're talking about a 1.6 trillion dollar economy with a quarter-trillion dollars in annual federal expenditures. I'd rather have better governance than an extra $30 million to be blown on some random stimulus project.

    Frankly, there's a dearth of talent in the House, in all parties. Each party has its share of talented and hard-working MPs, but each party is also riddled with middling, medicore backbenchers. Increasing the number of MPs increases the talent pool available to prime ministers and opposition leaders when it comes to selecting ministers and opposition critics. As Potter and Coyne point out, a bigger House gives MPs more independent power, and counteracts party discipline.

    The UK, with a population of 62 million, has 642 MPs. Even with its larger population, the UK has a lower MP-per-capita ratio than Canada does.

    • (Edit: UK has a higher MP-per capita ratio.)

    • I don't like this dismissal of $30 mill as "pocket change"… you know how it is, ten million here, ten million there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

      But putting that aside, I agree with the conclusion since an independent and representative Parliament is exactly the sort of thing we should be spending tax dollars on.

  4. Andrew, would you care to share your thoughts on whether the Senate could use more seats to go about more of its type of business (reviewing bills in detail, issuing reports on long-term issues or issues neglected by the Commons, etc)? I suppose it's almost moot since it won't happen in this political environment, but I would appreciate your perspective on whether the arguments for increasing the Commons size would also apply to the Senate.

    Serious question, really.

  5. It's a good question. Why not restore ON/BC/AB representation to full parity, instead of these half-measures that only partially redress the disparity in representation?

    • Doing that requires some provinces be underrepresented, due to PEI's constitutionally enforced overrepresentation.

  6. I'm not sure what the issue with this is, but would be interested in learning….

  7. I'm not so sure I'm sold on the "increases the talent pool" idea.
    Could it not also decrease the talent pool?
    Compare it to something like the NHL, which due to expansion, has so many sub-par players involved by necessity.
    If the wrong 30+ people are brought in, could not the circus get more out of hand?
    I'm on the fence – sell me!

  8. I'm on the fence for expansion.
    I'd like to see a better quality of candidates, preferably with extensive ranges of backgrounds.
    Lastly – Upon election, is it possible to have some kind of basic intelligence test?
    We really need to make rid of some of the pampered block heads who play the game…

  9. I would advocate that the Canadian Senate be reformed to have an equal amount of senators per province and a different amount per territory. To have both houses of Parliament skewed towards the population could potentially open up the other provinces to abuse. I mean, why should the populous provinces support any of the needs of the lesser provinces? Why not just ignore them until a point where one province can absorb another?

    • In the US that makes sense, but in Canada House of Commons seats aren't distributed purely on the basis of population, so adding to the overrepresentation of less populous provinces in the House by also giving them a majority in the Senate would skew things too far away from giving individuals, rather than just provinces, representation. I would only support a Senate with an equal number of seats for each province if it was tied to a change to make House of Commons representation on the basis of population (meaning the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan would have more representation in the Senate but less in the House).

  10. If you drew up a list of the 100 best hockey players in Canada over the age of 18, most of these people are already playing in the NHL. Therefore, increasing the number of NHL spots available won't increase the average talent level in the NHL.

    However, if you could compile a list of the top 100 people in this country with the skills needed to succeed as an MP, most of these people aren't in politics – they're mainly employed by the private sector, some are employed by the public sector, and some are in academia.

    Increasing the number of seats probably wouldn't dilute or decrease the MP talent pools. Assuming competitive nomination processes, adding 30+ new seats will probably be beneficial, because more people from outside politics will be encouraged to consider a career in federal politics. At the moment, many safe seats are held by backbenchers with good schmoozing skills but not much else, yet these middling incumbents are rarely challenged by more qualified nominees in the same party, because the odds are stacked against newcomers.

  11. There was an interesting article in Harper's Magazine, probably 15 years ago, on why the US Senate should just be abolished and the number of members in the House of Representatives increased. We don't want an equal amount of Senators per province because the six smallest provinces and territories representing only approximately 15 per cent of the nation's population would hold a majority in the Senate. That makes no sense what so ever. More MP's and NO Senators is the best option – let the Premiers look out for regional interests.

    • How is that argument any more valid than the one that says we don't want two provinces having control over the other eight? Did I miss that period in our history when PEI and Manitoba et al. ganged up and crushed the poor, downtrodden misrepresented souls of Ontario and Quebec? What century was that?

      • The argument is that provinces are responsible for their issues as laid out in the constitution (admittedly this relies on the all important issue of spending powers). The Senate is overkill. Abolish it and add more MP's were there are more people such as major cities.

        • There are too many areas where the Feds can have a huge impact on the fortunes of one province or region not to have province’s interests represented at the federal
          level – Cap and trade or carbon taxes being one very big example.

          As for the sixty percent being only 15% of the pop’n, this is a number that is always in flux – there was a time when Nova Scotia had far more population than some of the western provinces for example. As for the 15% of pop’n controlling the senate, I take your point. That should be addressed by creating some kind of formula that consolidates or divides provinces when the are under or exceed certain population criteria. If consolidation is not geographically or politically possible (say NL became too small) then it would revert to territorial status and recieve a single senate seat instead of ten. That minimum population
          should be fixed at say, 1 percent of the country’s population
          and adjusted only every 25 years. On the too big side of the ledger, division would be allowed above 20% of the national pop’n, but that must be agreed to by 60% of that provinces pop’n.

          Using the concept above, PEI would likely join NB and ontario would
          likely split into two or three (province of Toronto anyone?) parts and even Quebec might divide to increase
          it power in the senate if it chose to do so.

          The logic behind the above i think should be obvious, just as the HOC varies it numbers based on changing pop’n, allowances must bade fornthe senate to change is character based to some braided degree based on pop’n while still preserving equality between the provinces.

          • Drat hit the send button by accident. I hope the last paragraph was decipherable.

            Any way assuming that ON became three, Que became two and PEI became a part of NB
            and there were ten senators per province, there would be a total of 140 senators and assuming for argument’s sake that they voted as provincial blocs it would take 39% of the pop’n
            to get 60 % of the votes. (perhaps the division threshold should be 25%, not 20%).

  12. Consolidate the Atlantic provinces into a single entity and then representation by population might seem more balanced. The Senate needs to be reworked to remove the remnants of party politics where it doesn't belong; either it is independent of parliament or it's a lapdog.
    I'm still in the thought that unless the common person can afford a "failed" attempt at office than the direction to go is a smaller government. Either that or return to the days when elected officials sat little and required regular jobs to make a living. The mandarins run the day to day details anyways.

    • An elected Senate, with elections between the election for the House of Commons would go a long way.

    • Can't do that. We'll all leave.

  13. I would think an entrenched bureaucracy, for better or worse, has more to do with keeping things stable than an entrenched executive.

  14. 30 more bloc-voting, party-whipped, pillow-fighters in the HOC? PASS.

  15. Agreed. Dilution of power is generally good.

    Actually I'd prefer enough MPs that everyone can get to know their riding candidates personally rather than voting on the basis of TV ads. Since that probably works out to about fifty thousand MPs though, it might be worth adding an intermediate layer of (unpaid) electors whose only job is to vote for a small number of MPs. Then the public votes for 50K electors, each of whom is known personally to his constituents, and the electors – hopefully chosen for their good judgment – vote in a few hundred MPs.

    • An electoral college?

  16. Pissing off the Bloc is, arguably, also a good enough reason to do anything.

    Stopped reading here.

    You still haven't grasped the whole "provocative" thing have you, Potty?

    • Tiggy, they're separatists, don't you know.

  17. Year – Number of MP's

    1867 – 180
    1872 – 200
    1874 – 206
    1882 – 211
    1887 – 215
    1896 – 213
    1907 – 214
    1908 – 221
    1917 – 235
    1925 – 245
    1949 – 262
    1953 – 265
    1968 – 264
    1979 – 282
    1988 – 295
    1997 – 301
    2004 – 308

    Overall: Number of MP's is going up.

    Can anyone quantify "party discipline", "accountability", etc… and graph it against the data I've just presented?

    (I have an idea for a way to quantify the first of those, but it would involve years of research in the Journals of the House of Commons.)

    • Do those statistics mean anything without including the population of Canada at each time?

      • Yes, they do.

        How is the population of Canada relevant, if the accountability of the government or independence of MP's is somehow tied to the size of the chamber?

        • It's not and that's an excellent point which debunks Coyne/Potter's argument of more MPs = less party discipline.

  18. *shush* Sane people talking.

  19. I don't necessarily buy the argument that more MPs mean that there is a greater potential for more rogue MPs holding their caucus accountable.

    It seems to be like larger caucuses would have bigger battles for Cabinet spots as there is more people to fight. That has the potential to make MPs even more hyper partisan in order to get the attention of their leader.

    • I think that generally, people who propose these theories hope there are better in-party in-fighting for top positions. More simple, "gotcha" types of stories are available in the CP Kool-Aid.

  20. I just don't think I'll ever get over Andrew Potter's soundbite on The End of Suburbia when, in the face of much discussion about the misallocation of resources and the sustainability of that pattern of residential development, he offered this profound insight:

    "Well, that's what people wanted."

    As an ironic statement, it's as good as gold. As the product of a modern public intellectual, it continues to haunt.

  21. More MPs'! What a joke. The only political action of any consequence the average MP does is stand up and vote the way the Party Whip tells them. Why do we need more of them, plus staff, plus expenses.

  22. Yes, but for 300 MPs instead of 1 President.

    • I do like the idea, but, as you yourself point out (based on the American experience), you would have to wonder how it would all shake out a decade or two or six after such a system would be put in place.

      Regarding the 30 extra MPs, I'd be just as happy to leave the total at 308, and then just rejig riding boundaries as best we can to achieve a more uniform ratio of MPs to constituents, realizing that the historical rules are going to lead to a certain number of ridings that fall under the theoretical ratio.

  23. Under the current distribution of seats, the Conservatives are short by about three seats due to population inequities. In Ontario, if some seats are added to the suburban ridings around Toronto, then the Conservatives may win a few extra seats (in both real numbers and percentage of ridings).

  24. NO, NO, NO! Do not try to fix the problem by increasing the number of MP's. Do it by readjusting what there is now and decrease the size of the Senate as well. How ridiculous at this time of huge deficit, to add to the burden of cost to run the country. We want less government not more! I wish the political parties would stop playing these costly games in order for them to keep/regain their power. Selfish Bas****s! When will they really start caring about the Canadian citizens instead of themselves?

    • Hear, hear sprite. SH's motives can be pretty selfish.

  25. If the HoCs is increased to 338 seats, then 170 would be a majority. Conservatives hold 143 seats so they would need an additional 27 MPs to form a majority gov't. If Quebec nationalists felt disenfranchised by the change they could flock to the BQ to further protect their interests in the HoCs, perhaps to 60 MPs and only having 15 MPs from national parties. If all 15 went to the Liberals, that could mean de facto separation of interests in the HoCs.

    To form a 170 seat majority gov't from the RoC and it's 263 ridings would require a win rate of 65%… which is marginally better than winning 155 MPs from 233 seats in the RoC.

    In any event, if Quebec elects even more BQ MPs to represent their separatist interests, that will only hasten the breakup of Canada … unless the RoC votes in a majority Conservative gov't, thus neutering the BQ out of federal politics. Canadians must now choose a majority Conservative gov't or another minority gov't that would cripple the country after any next election.

  26. "That seems paradoxical, but the main problem with Ottawa isn't that there are too many MPs, it is that there are too few. "

    If wishes were horses ….. I would love to believe there were some budding MPs out there just looking to take on their own party's leadership but I don't believe it. I think we are going to just elect even more wastrels and half wits like than we do already.

    Potter Did you see video of US congressman asking Admiral if Navy was worried about Guam tipping over, and the people all fall into the ocean, because there are too many people? It is something to behold, that's for sure. I think we are going to elect a lot more people like him than anyone half competent enough to build their own little power base within the party that is separate from leader. [youtube zNZczIgVXjg youtube]

    • Voters per congressional district in the US: 307,000,000/435 = 705,747
      Voters per MP in Canada: 33,000,000/308 = 107,000

  27. "a bigger House means more safe seats, which –as in Britain – means more MPs who don't owe anything to their party":

    I don't follow this logic. Since in a safe seat, the real battle is for the nomination, not the actual election, don't MP's in safe seats have even less owed to the party? Your average Tory backbencher in rural Alberta or Liberal backbencher in Toronto are probably only sitting in the HoC because they have a Conservative or Liberal tag next to their names on the ballot, so why would creating more seats in which the election is an afterthought to the local nomination create more independent MP's?

    More safe seats also means more star candidate appointments probably.

  28. There are three clear effects from this legislation.
    1. Increase the representativeness of the house of commons
    2. Increase the likelihood of a majority government
    3. Decrease the size of the average riding, allowing MP's to be more responsive to local concerns

    There are some less-clear ones as well.
    1. This may decrease the strength of political parties (which I would consider to be a bad thing*) by creating more safe districts and reducing the cost of campaigning, but it likely won't have a substantial impact in that regard. Canadians are party voters, and the parties control both the appointment of cabinet seats, and the purse-strings during elections.
    2. This may attract more high quality candidates, simply because there are more spots. However it could also prevent high quality candidates from making a mark once in parliament, because their voices would be drowned out by a larger number of boorish hecklers.

    *The interest of political parties is in winning more seats, which means targeting the moderate swing ridings of the country. The interest of individual members is in getting re-elected in their ridings, which means targeting parochial, and sometimes extremist (relative to the country) concerns. Strong party government is good government.

  29. I think adding more MPs would only work if we adopted some other practices they use in the U.K., such as the caucus appointing the party leader. This would help to balance the power between the plowhorses and the guy holding the whip.

    I also like the idea of giving riding associations final say over candidate selection. If the party leadership don't like the candidate (because they don't fit in with their vision of party philosophy or whatever), then they could veto that candidate–but they could not appoint a replacement. The party would not have a candidate in that riding. The party leader's pick could run as an independent, without the support of the riding association.

  30. As well as more seats in the house, we really need a better voting system. The current one greatly distorts regional support in the HOC – about half the people who vote don't get who they vote for. Support for both the Conservatives in Alberta and the Bloc in Quebec is greatly exaggerated by our first past the post system (see

    We also need party reform, so that the party leader doesn't sign papers for each candidate and the caucus chooses their party leader, not the party members (I know this seems counter-intuitive, but the caucus can easily withdraw their support while the party members cannot). It also allows the elected MPs more direct say in what the party leader chooses to do and this is especially important when that party leader is the Prime Minister.

  31. This strikes me as a good move; whether or not it has any impact on party discipline or the likelihood of majority governments, it will make the distribution of seats a lot more fair. BC, Alberta and Ontario are currently very underrepresented in Parliament in terms of population, and they've also got the fastest-growing populations in the country.

    I'd prefer if we could sustain the current number and just redistribute them according to population, but as that's constitutionally impossible this is a good solution.

  32. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! Correcting an unjust system with a greater number of MP's merely intensifies and further complicates the problem. It does not correct it. A rethinking of the system and previous laws about distribution of MP's is long overdue, but it seems no one has the guts to do what it really takes to correct the problem. We do not need the further financial burder of more MP's.

  33. I don't see how more MPs would break party discipline. Just more weight to the party. I absolutely agree with Think About It comment above. The problem in my mind is poor communication between MPs and the people they represent to the extent that no one feels as if they can make any difference. Better, easier, more straightforward communication might be much more efficient a solution than just "more people". It is Information Age we live in, not Industrial anymore.

  34. Whether Andrew is right or not about having more M.P.s meaning a better House (I think that's a fair one-sentence summary), it's certainly true that the drawing of electoral districts has led to absurdly wide variations in population, and thus to an egregious violation of the rep. by pop. principle.

    It's hard to see the road from here to there, though. The current Bill isn't even a quarter-measure. If P.E.I. is constitutionally guaranteed 4 seats (my understanding), than the House would have to have 1000 or so seats to make the ridings more or less equal in population. Would or could any party propose a tripling of the House's size?