Hey Liberals, the House faces West

Seat count: New legislation would add as many as 34 seats to the current 308, all of them in Tory-friendly parts of the country

Hey Liberals, the House faces WestElsewhere in this issue you will find an incisive exploration of the Liberal party’s latest self-inflicted wounds in Quebec. As for me, my only contribution is to ask of certain members of that great party: will you please get real?

If, as we are told, the subtext to the unpleasantness over who is to be the party’s nominee in Outremont is the rivalry between Denis Coderre and Martin Cauchon to succeed Michael Ignatieff as leader; and if the supposition, as that suggests, is that the next Liberal leader must come from Quebec, in the historic party tradition of alternance; and if, as that suggests, certain members of the party are still fixated on regaining Quebec as the route to their eventual restoration as the natural governing party—then again I ask: will you please get real?

Has there been a more stunning example of a ruling caste succumbing to the delights of fratricide, at the very moment the forces that would consign them all to oblivion were amassing? The last act of Hamlet comes to mind, but aside from that? Already the Tories are blanketing the country with pre-election spending, in the name of “stimulus.” In the campaign to come, they will invoke the coalition power grab to remind voters of Liberal hubris. And if ever the Tories win their majority, there goes the party’s public subsidy.

But it is the Liberals who will be responsible for their own demise if they do not put aside their fascination with disembowelling themselves long enough to notice a much more ominous trend, one that threatens to lock them out of power for decades. In a word, it is called redistribution. Even as the Battle of Outremont was raging last week, the Conservatives were letting it be known they were preparing legislation that would radically reapportion the seats in the House of Commons, adding as many as 34 seats to the current 308, all of them in Tory-friendly parts of the country: B.C., Alberta, and suburban Ontario.

The Liberals can’t say they weren’t warned: the Conservatives have twice brought forward similar legislation before this, only to see both die on the order paper. Neither can they object to the bill on any principled basis: these are the fastest-growing parts of the country, and the ones suffering the starkest discrimination under the present allocation. Between them, the three provinces are home to nearly 63 per cent of the population, yet receive just 55 per cent of the seats. Alberta, with a population of nearly 3.7 million, gets just 28 seats, or one seat for every 131,702 residents. At the other extreme, Prince Edward Island, with about 140,000 citizens, is guaranteed four seats—a ratio of one seat to 35,246 Islanders.

In any normal country, this sort of accumulated unfairness would be remedied after each census, simply by reshuffling the seats among the provinces. In Canada, the process is hamstrung by a variety of constitutional and quasi-constitutional grandfather clauses, the upshot of which is that no province can see any reduction in its current seat count.

If no province can have fewer seats than it has now, then the only way to achieve greater parity is by adding seats to the disenfranchised, that is by expanding the House. Still, the arithmetic is tricky. To bring Ontario, B.C., and Alberta up to their proportionate share, you’d have to add 64 seats overall. And even if no province is worse off in absolute terms, that doesn’t mean the others won’t squawk at seeing their share of the total decline. To be sure, in most cases they would only see a reduction in the unfair advantage they currently enjoy. But in the case of one province, it would actually be put at an unfair disadvantage. Unhappily, that province is Quebec—currently slightly overrepresented, it would be slightly under-represented in a reformed House.

So the bill the Tories are preparing is, necessarily, a compromise: it would not move the three provinces all the way to parity, but more nearly so. Even so, it’s nervy. It would appear the Tories are prepared to brave the inevitable backlash in Quebec, in anticipation of electoral gains elsewhere.

Which brings us back to the Liberals. If the Grits think they are going to rebuild out of their old stronghold of Quebec, they are delusional. The population, the money, and the power are all shifting west, and will continue to do so, in all likelihood, for decades to come. Where are the Grits in the West? Nowhere, that’s where.

Time was when Liberal governments won power with a healthy number of seats from the West. But that hasn’t been the case for, well, decades: the last Liberal government to carry the West was Mackenzie King’s, in 1949. In the 60 years since then, the Grits have rarely won more than a handful of seats in the West—even in the Trudeaumania election of 1968, they took just 27 of 68. Once, they could get by on the strength of their historic dominance of Quebec, or latterly Ontario. But Quebec is lost to them now. And Ontario, increasingly, is looking West, aligning its interests and values, not with Quebec, but with the western provinces.

What is the Liberal strategy for rebuilding in the West? Do they have one? Has it even occurred to them, obsessed as they are with retaking Outremont? Is this party for real?

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