Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No place for politics as ridings change

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OTTAWA -- There was a whole lot of shouting last week over whether there is something nefarious at play in the redistribution of Saskatchewan's 14 federal ridings.

The opposition smelled blood after the Conservatives had to admit the party was behind a robocall aimed at rousing public anger against proposed changes to Saskatchewan's ridings. The party's spokesman, Fred Delorey, and Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski, denied the party was behind the calls, which claimed the changes betrayed "Saskatchewan values."

After an investigation by the Ottawa Citizen matched the voice on the call to the owner of the Edmonton robocall company used mainly by the Conservatives, Delorey admitted the call came from them. He blamed an "internal miscommunication" for the fact the calls weren't identified as coming from the Conservative party. That violates Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rules requiring all calls to identify the source.

So, now we have the opposition yelling that the party broke CRTC rules and is trying to gerrymander Saskatchewan all at the same time.

On the first count, it appears the party did break the rules. Liberal Frank Valeriote's Guelph riding association was fined $4,900 by the CRTC last year for not identifying itself as the source of a robocall during the 2011 federal election. Conservative MPs have crowed about it for months. (Pot, meet kettle?)

But what about the other accusation? Is a push poll by a political party evidence of gerrymandering?

At worst, it's likely this poll was in bad taste, as it appeared to question the ethics or impartiality of the independent three-member commission in Saskatchewan that's making the decision about the riding boundaries.

The root of the issue is eight of the 14 ridings in Saskatchewan are known as "rurban" ridings, a mix of rural and urban areas. The riding redistribution commission in Saskatchewan last year announced plans to rejig the ridings to have five ridings that will be almost entirely urban. The idea is that city folk have more in common with other city folk and rural folk with rural folk.

But there is also a political fight at play because the existing ridings see the NDP's more urban vote split between ridings. Despite earning one in three votes in Saskatchewan in 2011, the NDP didn't win a single seat, and finished second in 13 of them.

The Conservatives' knickers are in a knot about the changes mainly because they could lose several seats in the next election, although their public argument is the changes will pit rural and urban voters against each other.

So the question may be, is it gerrymandering in favour of the NDP to change the ridings or are the Tories attempting to gerrymander to keep Saskatchewan ridings easier to win?

At the end of the day, Canadians and Saskatchewan residents have to trust the commission will make its decision based on what's right for voters, not for any of the political parties.

In each province, a three-member commission is appointed to do the redistribution. The commission is made up of a provincial judge appointed by the chief justice in each province, and two members chosen by the Speaker of the House of Commons. In this case, that is Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, but his choices were not partisan. In Manitoba, he chose two political science professors.

They listened to submissions from the public and MPs -- including some who seemed intent on changing ridings to favour one party or another. Three Conservative MPs wanted to redraw Elmwood-Transcona to remove the NDP-leaning Elmwood and replace it with more Conservative-friendly rural areas to the east.

But there were also presentations made by other party supporters seeking to prevent the more Conservative-friendly Lindenwoods from being added to Winnipeg South Centre, which will make the riding harder for the Liberals to win back.

The commission rejected both ideas.

A push poll may be questionable and for the Conservatives to deny involvement is sketchy. But at the end of the day, it is still a non-partisan committee making the new maps.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2013 A7

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