The Globe and Mail reported this week that the Conservative government will proceed soon with legislation to increase the number of federal seats in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec. Government House Leader Peter Van Loan told the G&M the move was necessary to address the needs of larger provinces with growing populations. "What has happened is that we’ve have had a situation arise where votes are worth very different amounts across the country," Van Loan said. "This is because the existing formula restrains the growth of seats in areas that are experiencing high growth, particularly in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia."
However, neither the G&M or Van Loan addressed the issue of how this proposal would affect smaller provinces. There was some concern expressed about how this would impact Quebec, which in many respects has hit above its weight because of a variety of factors, not least of which was the on-again, off-again threat of separation. However, in this most recent election, the Conservatives demonstrated quite clearly there is a majority government to be had without substantial support from Quebec.
So what’s behind all this? At a time when the Tories have proven conclusively you can build a majority with concentrated support in only a few provinces, moving to increase the number of seats in those provinces seems, at first blush, rather cynical. However, you cannot ignore the fact population gains in those provinces do in fact require some sort of response. It’s not cynical, but it is very fortuitous that the Tories have an opportunity to rebalance Parliament at a time when those provinces that stand to gain also happen to vote predominantly Tory.
And what will happen to smaller provinces? It’s hard to imagine how provinces such as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Atlantic provinces could have less influence than they do now, which is to say, very little. In the last federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Manitoba once. This was a reflection of the fact that Manitoba — which was seen as having little growth potential — was not important to the Tory war plan. In the end, the Tories did pick up two seats despite little support from the central campaign. But that is not likely to earn Manitoba any additional attention from Ottawa. It is important to note this isn’t just a Tory attitude; the former Liberal government had little love for the smaller provinces, concentrating its campaigns on already seat-rich Ontario.
Although it’s true a vote in a densely populated urban Ontario riding is not "worth" the same as a vote in a Winnipeg riding, it’s hard to argue that Ontario in particular doesn’t already eclipse the federal political agenda. Will adding seats to Ontario give the province more heft in the House of Commons? Not likely. But it does mean it will become even easier for a single party to focus its campaign on only one or two provinces in pursuit of a majority.
In trying to be fairer to voters in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., it’s almost impossible to avoid weakening the already weak position of smaller provinces. That may be seen as the lesser of two evils, but it does at some level weaken the very nature of the federation.
In the end, this IS a debate about fairness, but not fairness for all.