Friday, 18 November 2011

Spectres of George Brown: Rep by Pop Redux

George Brown was Canada's most ardent advocate for representation by population, the basic principle by which political representation is inextricably tied to population. His clarion call was simple and to the point: "Representation by population. Justice for Upper Canada!" (quoted in Lewis, 75). It was a simple matter of justice and fairness. For the rest of his political career and through the rest of his life - until his untimely death - Brown was consistent in his pleas for fair representation for Upper Canada.

That demand remained a central feature of Brown's reformist movement and its most prominent demand. In the Legislative Assembly Brown frequently gave voice to the under-represented people of Upper Canada. Rising in that Chamber, Brown articulated the problem:

"The people of Upper Canada have bitterly complained that though they numbered four hundred thousand souls more than the population of Lower Canada, and though they have contributed three or four pounds to the general revenue for every pound contribute by the sister province, yet the Lower Canadians send to parliament as many representatives as they do" (in Ajzenstat, 115)

As John Lewis, Brown's biographer, notes of the objections at the time, opponents argued that Lower Canadians had "submitted to injustice while they had a larger population, and that the Upper Canadians ought to follow their example" (Lewis, 84). A second objection, more formidable Lewis notes, argued that that very nature of the compact between French and English was premised upon equal representation and thus this would be shattered by representation by population.

Christopher Moore, while wrong in claiming Brown to be "the Preston Manning of his day" (a claim as inaccurate as it is insulting to Brown), correctly reflects the prevailing negative opinion against him. He notes that opponents labelled the scheme as "fanatical and bigoted. They would sow dissension among the founding peoples and divide the regions one from another. Pushed to their logical consequences, they would destroy the union" (Moore, 1). Rep-by-Pop would drive an irremovable wedge between peoples and undermine the foundations of Canada's fragile union.

Clearly the situation was untenable. For Brown, the initial reaction was simply to dissolve the legislative union. If fair representation wasn't to be had, it was best to return to the days as separate colonies. An alternative model - proposed by his political nemesis John. A. MacDonald - proposed a federal union, a scheme which would leave local matters in the hands of provincial legislatures while a central government would mind collective problems such as defense and trade. Speaking on the matter shortly after the successful Quebec Conference, Brown noted that:

"Now, sir, the measure in your hands bring this injustice to an end -- it sweeps away the line of demarcation between the two sections on all matters common to he whole province; it gives representation according to numbers wherever found in the house of assembly; and it provides a simple and convenient system for readjusting the representation after each decennial census" (Ajzenstat, 115).

Brown's speech was rightly met with cheers from the members of the assembly. Confederation was posited as a means of solving two tensions: a need for adequate representation and the needs of the French minority. Canada's much maligned and misunderstood Senate was an integral part of this system. Voracious opponents of the Senate and proponents of reform would be wise to consult the early histories of this country and the debates surrounding the union. Far from being an anti-democratic repository for elites - or, as it is now, failed Tory candidates - the Senate served the integral role of providing regional representation. The westward expansion of the country has since thrown this principle into disarray, but it remains a forgotten pillar of the Confederation bargain.

To offset the inequality faced by the smaller colonies - at the time Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but later and most notably PEI - representation was made to deliberately deviate from representation by population.
The American system of governance is the best model here, one that is blind to political and regional sentiments and works by the cold mechanics of set basic principles. Each state, regardless of size, is guaranteed two senators. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, works purely on the principle of representation by population. States regularly gain or lose representatives in a House with a set ceiling on members. As a result, the American Congress is always perfectly balanced.

Of course, the system in Canada is complicated in a way that the American system is not. The linguistic and historical divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada represents the perennial problem for redistributing seats in the House of Commons. The solution, as the Conservative's Fair Representation Act illustrates, is to add seats rather than redistribute them. The result is that, in order to balance the House, it simultaneously expands. The result is that Canadians are simultaneously over-represented and under-represented. As a country with only thirty-five million, we have an exorbitant number of representatives per person. Couple federal representation with the provincial and municipal and the situation becomes clear. At the same time, however, some Canadians are massively under-represented. The number of constituents per MP in some ridings is staggering - in Brampton for instance - where a single riding has a quarter of the representation of whole provinces (ie. PEI).

The situation is complicated by a - perhaps well-meaning - amendment to the Constitution Act in 1985. The Representation Act established a new procedure beyond the initial rules set out in the constitution. The end result, however, was to diminish the importance of representation in order to placate regional concerns. Elections Canada does a good job of outlining the current formula for redistribution here and here. Basically the formula fixes provinces arbitrarily at a particular point in time. This 'grandfather' clause prevents provinces from dipping below the level of representation in 1976. This, coupled with the 'senatorial clause' by which no province can have less Commons seats than senators, means that, in essence, representation is stuck in a distributional purgatory resembling 1976.

Canada has - it should go without saying - changed vastly since 1976. The growth the the West - particularly Alberta - has been astonishing. Ontario too has grown significantly, as has British Columbia, yet their representation continues to lag. The Conservative plan is a mere stopgap solution and will do nothing to address population growth in the future. It still leaves the fastest growing provinces under-represented while the laggards continue to be over-represented. Prince Edward Island skews the statistics significantly, but in fairness, haggling over two seats is quibbling. In the grand scheme of things, PEI is not the problem. The problem is that no provinces - particularly Quebec - like to abide by basic principles, especially when they don't stand to win. Timid politicians - Liberal in past, but now Conservatives - have been reluctant to act. The New Democrats have been most hypocritical on the matter. Once champions of fair representation and voting reform, that party is unwilling to bend now that the majority of its caucus depends on support in Quebec. In this regard - and with some other policies, such as the 50+1 lunacy - there is little separating the NDP from the Bloc, with the notable exception that the Bloc can actually speak French.

The House of Commons can't expand indefinitely. Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario will continue to grow while other provinces continue to decline. Already there are more MPs than tasks to keep them occupied. Even with a bloated cabinet, there are many in the Conservative caucus without portfolio. There are too few committee spots to be filled, leaving an excessive number of backbenchers without meaningful work apart from their constituency service. They have no power and little to keep them busy. In essence, the Conservative bill will add thirty more backbenchers to ranks already swelling.

The Liberal Party has unveiled its own plan - albeit unlikely to accomplish much - that includes a ceiling on the number of representatives. It would seek to redistribute the existing seats, with some provinces loosing at the expense of others. For instance, provinces with declining populations will cede seats to those with growing populations. The Commons as a whole would remain at 308. The optics of this are much harsher than reality, as those provinces on the losing end will still  have greater representation than their population. It is not representation by population to an exact percentage. More striking, however, is that the plan would do the unthinking: reduce Quebec's share by a whooping three. This, of course, will not go over well.

As some have already noted, however, this would require an amendment to the Constitution in order to repeal or modify the Representation Act. Stephane Dion is confident that this is a small problem to overcome, at least legally. That act was entrenched in the constitution by one the unilateral amending formula -  section 44 - which pertains to the powers of Parliament to make laws exclusively pertaining to this. Section 44 avoids the rigorous challenge of unanimous consent or the 50/7 rule. The only legal snag would be if some provinces could convince the courts that by convention the Federal government is bound to consult with them or, worst case scenario, that an amendment would have proceed from the two more strenuous options. For my find, however, the chances of this happening are slim. A simple appeal to section 44 should suffice.

The real problem is not legality, but a lack of political will. Right wing commentator Kelly McParland has lambasted the Liberals in his National Post column, accusing the Liberals of attempting to goad the ruling Conservatives into a 'self-injuring stunt'. McParland is articulating two interrelated, but in no sense equal, concerns. First, he's worried about the damage to the Conservative chances in Quebec. This is a moot point. Quebec has, by and large, rejected Harper's brand of conservatism. His chances of a breakthrough are slim to none in four years time. Moreover, this is a government that has, with few exceptions, been indifferent to Quebec and, in many case, outright hostile. This has only intensified. His caving to Jean Charest on the bribe has been offset by Quebec's losing of ship-building contracts, siding with Newfoundland on offshore energy questions, and, most importantly, his complete indifference to the French language in both his Auditor General and Supreme Court selections. If there really is a question of protecting Quebec's interests, the evidence doesn't support this.

McParland astutely observes that it would be the Conservatives who would be expected to undertake this thankless task. He unleashes a wave of hyperbole so dense only the National Post can contain it:

"Notice how the Liberals aren’t suggesting they’d reduce Quebec’s seat total. (Are you nuts? Think they’re suicidal?) No, they want the Tories to do it, because they know the real result would be the political equivalent of nuclear armageddon, with Conservative hopes of ever winning another Quebec seat transformed into the equivalent of a smoking, ruined hulk. A Canadian Chernobyl. Think Dresden, 1945."

Obviously the Liberals are not suggesting that they will do this. They can't. They are the third party and no election is schedule for four years. The Conservatives are in power, it is expected that they would have to do this. The Liberals have essentially called the government's bluff - all those calls for the opposition should come up with solutions instead of complaining about the government - and presented a workable, fair solution.

Second, McParland is suddenly concerned with national unity, a topic which has received little attention from this government. As Jean Chretien noted, the most important job of the Prime Minister is the question of national unity. Harper, on the other hand, has largely ignored this portfolio. If he thinks his resolution in the House declaring Quebec a nation within a unified Canada suffices, he is sorely wrong. What's odd about McParland's conversion  is that placation of Quebec in the past has been met hostily. Now we're treated to his alter-ego. One can't help but question whether or not it's the substance of the proposal itself, or the fact that it is a Liberal proposal.

McParland is also critical of Stéphane Dion's assertion that Quebec will be accepting of the redistribution, so long as the it remains proportional. Balderdash says McParland! Quebec won't stand for this. On this I'll defer to Dion. He has the knowledge and expertise on this issue that hack columnist lack. He has devoted consider blood, sweat and tears to the issue of national unity, before public life and during it. Dion has heard this kind of fear mongering before. The Clarity Act was objected to on similar grounds that it would merely provoke Quebec into another quick referendum. It hasn't. Moreover, McParland is viewing Quebec through the lens of its political elite, not of actual Quebecers. The political elite - federalist or sovereigntist - has always found wedge issues to exploit, feeding Ottawa's fear of national disintegration in order to extract concessions and play to provincial audiences. McParland's caricature is unhelpful.

Canadian politics has a nasty history of repeating itself. We are now rehashing a debate, and on similar grounds, as what consumed the Legislative Assembly of the United Province of Canada in the years - indeed, decades - leading to Confederation. Federal union was touted as the solution to these intractable problems of section discord. It balanced regional issues - namely protecting small or linguistically distinct provinces - while ensuring as near as possible the spirit and fact of representation by population. Today's leaders would do well to remember that this is part of the principle bargain that brought the first four British colonies together into a federal Canada. These principles are foundational and central facts, they underpin the compromise of 1867.

It's strange that the successor to the modern Reform Party - a party that sought equitable and fair representation for the west - has all but abandoned pretense of democracy. It decries the Senate as undemocratic while ignoring the growing democratic gap in the House. Part of the solution, ironically, may very well reside in an institution that is sold as past its best before date. Like it or not, the Senate was part of the original bargain. It has been derided largely because of the rhetoric of the government which has resorted to undermining it as an institution in order to sell its reform package and, no less important, because it is so incredibly misunderstood by Canadians. The Senate mediates regional and democratic needs. It is unelected, yes, but so are the judiciary and civil servants.

The government should look to a reinvigorated Senate and to the bargain struck between parties, colonies and peoples at Confederation as a guide. This means taking it seriously as a body and restoring its role as a chamber of sober second thought. It should publicize the good work the Senate does for Canadians. The government could easily impose new standards on qualifications and eschew appointing hacks and party bagmen. Concrete steps can be taken to restore the credibility of the Senate without resorting to elections - a move which would distort the existing balance between the chambers and undermine its oversight function. A properly functioning Senate would, most importantly, relief pressure on the House of Commons to mediate rep-by-pop and regionalism, a balance that is practically impossible to manage and one that, frankly, it was never intended to do. Adequate representation is a central pillar of democracy, one without which it cannot long stand. This debate highlights the fact that Canada is sorely missing a figure like George Brown to advocate on behalf of democratic principles, but also a figure sensitive to the antagonisms between peoples.

As Brown warned the assembly many years a go

"Something must be done. We cannot stand still. We cannot go back to the chronic, sectional hostility and discord.--to a state of perpetual ministerial crisis ... The claims of Upper Canada for justice must be met, and met now" (in Lewis, 172)

Works Cited

Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, and William D. Gairdner. Eds. Canada's Founding Debates Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
John Lewis. George Brown. Toronto: Morang & Co., 1906.
Christopher Moore. 1867: How the Father's Made A Deal. Toronto: MaClelland and Stewart, 1997.

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