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Mark Johnson: Canada has too many MPs

Commentary

The Conservative leadership race is still in its early days. Battle lines are being drawn. Forces are being marshalled. General themes are being developed. Dinnertime robocalls have started. (Lucky me.) And we’ve heard some early gunfire. All standard stuff. But the race needs more than just the same old debates between the same old wings of the party. And so far, the race is quickly becoming nothing but a party referendum on the carbon tax.

Those debates are both needed and important but it’s time for some bold new ideas to bring to Canada. Here’s one that’s overdue for serious debate. Reduce the number of MPs.

You read that right. Yes, it’s coming from someone who wanted to be an MP. Does Canada really need 338 MPs?“Each member of Parliament is elected to represent a constituency in the House. There are currently 338 members in office in the 44th Parliament.” https://www.ourcommons.ca/members/en And that number is set to go to 342.“Put forward in October 2021 as the years-long process kicked off, the independent elections agency calculated that to account for Canada’s population changes, the House of Commons’ seat count would in the coming years be increasing from 338 to 342. To adjust for this, new ridings will be added, requiring the redrawing of current electoral district boundaries.” https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/feds-look-to-amend-constitution-act-to-impose-new-minimum-seat-count-for-each-province-1.5833425 That’s one MP for every 112,000 of us. The U.S. has one Congressional representative for every 760,000 people thereabouts. We have so many MPs now that they barely fit into the House of Commons.

Raising this may get me into trouble with my political friends but it needs to be said. Let’s have a serious debate about whether Canada needs all these MPs. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the MPs themselves. They’re hardworking folks. I’m pro-politician. I tried hard to become one. Yet in the grand scheme of things, does Canada need that many MPs? Can we be just as well governed with fewer? We can.

If Conservatives are sincere about reducing the size of government, then let’s start at the top with the number of politicians.

What’s the connection between the size of our legislature and the quality of a national policy or a decision that’s national in scope? Does Canada today with 38 million people need more MPs formulating defence or economic policy than the Canada of 32 million? Would our Covid response have been worse if we had forty fewer politicians in Ottawa? Was it better because we had forty more?

More MPs means more salaries at $189,000 per head, plus more staffers, other costs, more people to mess around in things, and more projects to justify their existence.Indemnities, Salaries and Allowances The Devil makes work for idle hands. Idle MPs make for bigger government.

Some will argue that more populous ridings will only lead to politically underserviced citizens. Companies regularly downsize their workforces but achieve the same outputs. So why not the House of Commons. Ontario significantly cut its number of legislators in the late nineties. It can be done.

What’s a good number? That would be up for debate. Downsizing the House to 295 or 300 seats from 338 would return it to the size it was between 1988 and 2000, roughly speaking.

Here’s the sticky wicket. If we reduce the number, then it must only happen if we fairly allocate the remaining MPs across the provinces based on their relative populations. There’s not enough space here to describe the formula for allocating MPs to each province. It’s convoluted, outdated, and leads to enormous provincial disparities.

In the 2021 election, I ran in the suburban Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt. Its population is 105,000. The PEI riding of Malpeque has 36,000. According to Elections Canada, Ontario had one MP per 122,000 people on average. PEI had one MP per 41,000. Therefore, Islanders have three times the political power of Ontarians. Put another way, Canadians who live in Malpeque had three votes per person while those in my riding had one. I’ve got nothing against the good people of PEI but that’s manifestly unfair.

The equality of Canadians is violated. People’s voices aren’t heard. Regional grievances are fueled. Politics becomes distorted. Negative outcomes are more likely.

Let’s be honest. A reallocation of MPs based on the principle of political equality will lead to Atlantic Canada, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan having less clout than they have right now. But they won’t be getting any less than anyone else.

This will be a thorny debate, perhaps even an unpleasant one. Let’s not be afraid. Modernizing the formula requires a constitutional amendment.“An amendment that only ‘applies to one or more, but not all, provinces’ requires approval from the Canadian parliament and the governments of any affected provinces. An amendment that affects all provinces, by contrast, requires the approval of at least seven of the provincial governments representing at least 50 per cent of the Canadian population (sometimes called the 7-50 formula). On a handful of really important matters, such as changing the amending formula itself, unanimous provincial consent is necessary. The very high bar for passing substantial amendments is probably the main reason Canada’s Constitution has not been significantly modified since 1982, though there have been a few minor amendments passed, usually only involving one province (see sidebar). These are known as Constitution Amendment Proclamations.” https://thecanadaguide.com/government/the-constitution/

It risks dredging up regional tensions, old grudges, and provincial demands. Managing it to ensure a positive outcome will require leadership, compromise, discipline, and forbearance on the part of our leaders. It also requires hard boundaries to be placed on the scope. Just because we’re debating the number of MPs doesn’t mean we’ll re-open Senate reform or the distinct society clause.

Maybe it’ll be political suicide. Maybe, just maybe, it will succeed and Canada will be better for it.

Canada needs fewer, better politicians. We’re not better governed today because we have forty more MPs than we did twenty-five years ago. The ever-increasing number of MPs is not written in stone. It’s written in our law. We can change it. It’s past time we did so.

Liam Faught: Canada should appoint its first Indigenous Supreme Court justice

Commentary

Of the 115 people who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court since it was created in 1790, not one has been a Black woman. But with the closing of her confirmation hearings last week, and with at least two Republican Senators indicating their support, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is poised to become the first.“Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah said Monday evening they will vote to confirm President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson.” https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/04/politics/murkowski-romney-ketanji-brown-jackson-scotus-vote/index.html

In spite of the theatre, grandstanding, blatant partisanship, and plain absurdity that has come to define Supreme Court nominations in the U.S. (and make no mistake, the Senate judiciary committee hearings on Judge Jackson’s nomination have been no exception), this remains a momentous occasion for America, and especially for the millions of Black women who will soon see themselves represented at the highest level of the federal judiciary for the first time in American history.

In Canada, too, there will soon be a vacancy to fill on the country’s highest court. Several weeks ago, Justice Michael Moldaver announced that he will retire from the Supreme Court of Canada on September 1st of this year.“Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver will retire from the bench Sept. 1, ending a long judicial career that saw him sit on Canada’s highest court for more than a decade. ‘It has been an honour for me to be a member of this country’s highest court for the better part of 11 years,’ Moldaver said in a statement Thursday.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/supreme-court-justice-michael-moldaver-1.6362803 This offers Prime Minister Trudeau the opportunity—for the fifth time during his tenure—to nominate an Indigenous justice to the country’s highest court for the first time in Canadian history, and there are several reasons why this would be the right decision.

First, diversity on courts helps them make substantively better decisions. The Supreme Court of Canada is composed of a panel of nine justices, and all nine hear nearly all cases brought before the Court and participate in deliberations. Diversity amongst the justices on that panel helps ensure that decisions are taken with a full appreciation of the various unique perspectives on the case at hand and of the consequences that will follow from the Court’s ruling. Canadian jurisprudence has shown that representation is of great institutional value to our legal system—particularly where fundamental rights and freedoms are concerned; legal restrictions on abortion, for instance, were only eliminated in the 1988 Morgentaler case after Bertha Wilson, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada, had been appointed. She wrote a concurrence in that case that helped build the legal framework for reproductive rights jurisprudence in Canada.

Second, although cases involving Indigenous treaty rights, the concept of “Aboriginal title” and the status of Indigenous legal traditions vis-à-vis Canadian common law have preoccupied the Supreme Court of Canada for more than thirty years, there has not been a single Indigenous justice on the Court to participate in the adjudication of these cases. As Canadian courts continue to struggle with these issues and as new legal issues emerge (the horrific discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools last summer, for instance), the presence of an Indigenous justice will be more crucial than ever.

Finally, representation on the courts is a matter of legitimacy. For individuals to feel that institutions of government are legitimately empowered to adjudicate their rights and to shape the laws by which they are governed, they must see themselves represented in those institutions. Representation on courts encourages citizens to view both the process and the outcomes of trials as legitimate. Conversely, where representation is systematically lacking, confidence in the judiciary is diminished.‘Deck is stacked against us,’ says family of Colten Boushie after jury chosen for Gerald Stanley trial

This justification for representation is in fact already baked into the composition of the Supreme Court. Federal law requires the appointment of at least three judges who are familiar with the laws of Québec, by virtue of being either a judge or a lawyer in that province. The reason is not merely symbolic; Québec has a civil law system which is different from the rest of Canada, as well as unique legal and cultural traditions. Likewise, Indigenous communities have their own legal norms and traditions which have been explicitly acknowledged as having legal force in Canada.Pastion v. Dene Tha’ First Nation, 2018 FC 648 (CanLII), [2018] 4 FCR 467

Reflecting on the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008, and the significance it held for racial equality in America, author Toni Morrison called it a “reclamation of the promise of what America believed about itself.” So what did America believe about itself? That it was a country where anybody, regardless of their race, could become President. But until that actually happened—until Americans could point to Barack Obama and say it was possible because it happened—the notion that a Black man could become President was merely that, a notion.

If Canada believes itself to be a place that truly promises multiculturalism, that foundational Canadian virtue, and if those in power are serious about reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, then Indigenous representation in our highest civic institutions is simply a reclamation of that promise. If the law is to play any role in that project, then representation on the Supreme Court is an important first step.