Mr. Rodger Cuzner (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to be able to participate in debate prior to second reading on Bill C-49, an act respecting the effective date of the representation order of 2003.
The representation order referred to in the title of the act is the end product of a process for adjusting our electoral boundaries which takes place after every decennial census.
While this process is probably little known to most Canadians, it is fundamental to ensuring effective representation in the House of Commons for all regions, all provinces, all communities and all citizens. Given the importance of this process, I would like to spend a little bit of time today reviewing its key elements.
We should go back in this case to 1867 to find the origins of the electoral boundaries readjustment process, or the EBRA process, as it has become commonly known.
In addition to establishing a system that is based on representation by population, our Fathers of Confederation recognized the geographical, cultural, political and demographic diversity of our provinces and the importance of integrating these factors into any formula for distribution of seats in the House of Commons.
In addition to establishing a Parliament composed of two houses, the British North America Act of 1867 included section 51, which stated that the number of seats allocated to each province must be recalculated after each 10 year census, starting in 1871.
The act included a simple formula whereby the total number of seats was to be calculated by dividing the population of each province by a fixed number, referred to as the electoral quota or quotient. The quotient was derived by dividing the population of the province of Quebec by 65, the number of seats then held in Quebec under the Constitution. This formula provided the basis for the process we have today although there have been a number of important changes over the years.
For example, the famous Senate floor rule was added in 1915. It states that a province cannot have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate. This clause had the immediate effect of guaranteeing four seats to the province of Prince Edward Island and continues to provide a floor for a number of provinces today.
In 1946, the formula was changed so that 255 seats were allocated based on provinces' share of Canada's total population rather than the average population per electoral district in Quebec.
In 1951, the 15% clause was adopted to prevent too rapid a loss of seats in some provinces. Under the new rules, no province could lose more than 15% of the number of Commons seats to which it had been entitled in the last readjustment.
In the following decade, we entered what may be referred to as the modern era of electoral boundaries readjustment. Up to and including the boundary readjustment of 1951, the House of Commons itself was responsible for fixing the electoral boundaries of the electoral districts through a committee established for that purpose.
Concern about the level of influence exercised by the House led to the passing of the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act in 1964. The new act was also brought in against the backdrop of the experience of our neighbours to the south, who were beset by the problem of gerrymandering. The act, which provides the statutory mechanism with which to carry out the constitutional requirements in section 51, is strongly based on the idea of maintaining the independence of the electoral redistribution process.
In the interests of political neutrality, the act establishes independent commissions in each province. As originally passed, each commission was to be chaired by a judge designated by the chief justice of the province, and there were to be three other members, including a representation commissioner and a public servant who would sit on the commission. The post of representation commissioner was later abolished and those duties were transferred to the Chief Electoral Officer.
In addition to being independent, it was recognized at the time that the process should provide opportunities for everyone to express their views, including the public and members of Parliament. To this end, each provincial commission publishes proposed electoral maps in the newspapers and the public is invited to public hearings held in various locations.
Members of Parliament, who invariably have strong views on both the names and boundaries of electoral districts, can appear before the commissions during the public hearings and there is also provision for them to make objections to proposed changes through a committee of the House of Commons. The final decision, however, rests within the commissions.
The current guidelines for determining boundary adjustments are found in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, as amended in 1984. As set out in the act, the division of the province into electoral districts must proceed on the basis that the population of each electoral district in the province shall, as close as reasonably possible, correspond to the electoral quotient for that province.
However, making changes to electoral boundaries is not just a mathematical exercise. Rather, it is a delicate balancing act that must consider a number of factors, including the community of interest or the community of identity, or the historic pattern of an electoral district in that province, and a manageable geographic size for districts in sparsely populated rural and northern regions. In other words, the commissions must consider social, cultural, linguistic, geographic and other factors.
The commissions may depart from strict voter parity in order to take these factors into consideration so long as the population of each district remains within 25% more or 25% less of the electoral quota for that province. Exceptions to this range are possible, but only for remote and sparsely populated ridings. This 25% leeway reflects the Supreme Court's 1991 decision on Saskatchewan's provincial electoral boundaries, which concluded that the objective of the right to vote in the charter was to attain effective representation rather than strict voter parity.
This brings us to our present task. As all members will be aware, we have just completed the redistribution process and have new, up to date electoral maps. The only question is whether or not to accelerate its effective date. If operational concerns are satisfied, there is no reason not to do so, since this process is complete.
I have spoken today about the need for an independent electoral process. This will in no way change the EBRA process. It remains as independent as it always has been. The views of the public and members of Parliament have been heard. What has changed is that in this present case, the Chief Electoral Officer has told us that he does not need the full one year grace period that is prescribed in the act. In that case, I think we can all agree that it only makes sense to implement the new boundaries as soon as possible.
The sooner we act, the sooner the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta will get the seats they deserve and the sooner our electoral map will reflect all the other important changes in the demographic characteristics of Canada's electoral districts. If we delay implementation of the new ridings longer than is operationally necessary, it would be unfair not only to these particular regions but to all Canadians.
For these reasons I support this important legislation and I call upon all members to do so.
Subtopic: Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act