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Manitoba one of the biggest losers under Liberal plan

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The federal government is in the midst of pushing through legislation to increase the number of seats in the House of Commons to even out the distribution of seats in the wake of uneven population growth. Ontario, B.C. and Alberta have fewer seats in the house than they should have by population, while the rest of the provinces have more.

A Conservative bill introduced in October would add 30 seats in total (three in Quebec, 15 in Ontario, and six in both Alberta and B.C.) bringing the total number of seats in the House to 338. It won’t truly bring the ratio of population to MPs in line but it will make it much more even than it is now.

But adding another 30 MPs will cost taxpayers between $14.8 million and $18.2 million, with salaries, pensions and office budgets factored in. There will also be added costs come election time with another 30 ridings to outfit with riding representatives, and polling stations.

The Liberals today proposed an alternative, that would see some of the provinces which are overrepresented in the House of Commons lose seats to even things out a little. Marc Garneau and Stephane Dion, both Quebec MPs made the pitch this morning. They suggest cutting three seats from Quebec, two in each of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and one in each of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Ontario would get four of those seats, B.C. would get two and Alberta three.

The problems with the plan seem insurmountable. First while it gets a little closer to proper representation it doesn’t come as close as adding 30 seats does.

And it also seems to unfairly target Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Quebec while leaving New Brunswick and PEI alone. PEI is the most overrepresented province in Ottawa. New Brunswick is third.

PEI, which has four seats, registered 36,475 people per MP. In Manitoba, with 14 seats, there are 89,328 people per MP.

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan are almost equal with 75,564 people per seat in Saskatchewan and 75,550 people per seat in New Brunswick.

So why would the Liberals suggest taking two from Saskatchewan and Manitoba and none from either PEI or New Brunswick?

They say under the constitution no province can have fewer seats in the house of Commons than it does in the Senate. New Brunswick has 10 seats in both, PEI has four seats in both.

But the constitution also requires Quebec to have no fewer than 75 seats and the Liberals say they can get around that with a federal vote without the usual requirement to have a referendum and support of at least seven provinces and 50 per cent of the population.

I’m certainly no expert in the constitution but if you can get around one constitutional requirement why not another? If you’re willing to upset Quebec – which is usually the most easily affronted province in the federation – it seems a bit odd not to be willing to go at it also with the Atlantic.

Not to mention, the western provinces are also underrepresented in the Senate big time (each of the western provinces have six senators, while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which are smaller than all four western provinces, have 10 each). So using the fact the Atlantic can’t have any more seats cut because of their already too-high-seat-count in the Senate is just not going to go over well in the west, constitutional requirement or no constitutional requirement.

For a party desperately in need of some support in the west, this plan seems politically ill thought out.

Manitoba Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux defended the plan, saying after the bill to increase the House of Commons by 30 seats was introduced, he had a number of constituents complain about it.

"I believe the vast majority of Manitobans agree we do not need more MPs," he said.

That’s probably true. Politicians are way down the list of professions people trust. But I’m not sure Manitobans would be happy to see their influence in Parliament diminish while the influence of other provinces stays the same or gets better.

The problem of representation in the House is a big one and it is not going to be easy to solve. We shouldn’t just keep adding more seats, because that costs serious money and where are we going to even put them all? One pundit this week joked they’d have to start holding votes on the front lawn. The House is already jammed. Finding room for another 30 seats won’t be easy.

The fairest way to do it would be to simply decide on the maximum number of seats, and then once a decade or, divide that number by population in each province.

But doing this that way would require us to open up the constitution and that is a tough road to travel.

I’m not holding my breath.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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