Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Howard Anglin: We need a better, not smaller, House of Commons—Why it’s time to double the number of MPs

Commentary

As a rule, cynicism about politics and politicians is healthy. Given the state of our Parliament, it’s certainly easy. Pierre Trudeau famously said that members of parliament (he was addressing opposition members specifically) are nobodies once they get 50 yards from Parliament Hill. That was generous—it assumes they are somebodies when they are on the Hill. 

More often they find themselves compared to trained seals, tractable sheep, and other dumb animals.Tory Jackass Moves To Quash Right To Privacy With Orwellian Move As far as I am aware, the first ovine analogy came from the British MP Christopher Hollis in a gloomy tract from 1949 titled “Can Parliament Survive?”Can Parliament Survive? Hollis wrote (presumably from experience):

The member is the obedient servant of the party machine. He tramps into the division lobby voting for or against he knows not what … As things are now, it would really be simpler and more economical to keep a flock of tame sheep and from time to time to drive them through the division lobbies in the appropriate numbers.

As far as cost-cutting suggestions go, it’s not a terrible idea. We might even save on mowing the lawn in front of Parliament. 

It’s no worse, at least, than the recent proposal in these pagesCanada has too many MPs to cull the flock, er, reduce the size of the House of Commons. I don’t mean to be hard on Mark Johnson, who made probably the best possible case for fewer MPs. His problem was that there is no good way to make the case for a bad idea.

Let’s start with the obvious. Johnson’s proposal to reduce the number of MPs and create ridings of equal population would require a constitutional amendment. That is not happening. Setting aside the territories, 28 of the 30 smallest federal ridings (by number of electors) are in Atlantic Canada, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. None of those provinces is going to approve a plan to cut their representation.

So much for the idea in reality, but what about its merits in theory? Johnson’s main arguments are that: Canada was governed just as well (or at least no worse) 22 years ago with 40 fewer MPs; more MPs inevitably means bigger government; and we will save the cost of their salaries and staff budgets. 

It’s hard to dispute the first argument, if only because I don’t know how we would measure differences in the quality of government over such a short time. But Johnson is probably right that a Parliament of 300 MPs vs a Parliament of 340 MPs wouldn’t make much difference because increasing or decreasing the size of a group by 10 percent doesn’t change its basic structure or its internal dynamics. (More on what would later.)

The second point confuses the role of the House of Commons with the role of the government. There are very few opportunities for MPs to increase the size of government. Members do not initiate legislation, except through rare and mostly symbolic private members bills. It is not Parliament’s job to govern, but to scrutinize the government’s actions and debate its proposals. And if there is one thing we could use more of in Canada, it is more debate and more scrutiny. 

As for the savings to Canadians, cutting 40 MPs would save about $20 million, or 1/17,750th of the federal budget. 

Anticipating an objection that larger constituencies would mean worse service for constituents, Johnson assures us that private “[c]ompanies regularly downsize their workforces but achieve the same outputs.” Of course corporate “outputs” aren’t the same thing as customer service, as anyone who has spent time waiting to be connected to an overseas call centre can tell you. 

But I am not just here to shoot down a proposal, especially one that is already dead on arrival. I have, wait for it, my own “bold new idea.” Let’s go the other way and increase the size of the House of Commons. 

Doubling the number of MPs would be procedurally simple—we could just split each existing riding and not have to worry about constitutional futilities. That would exacerbate some distortions of representation, but then the Westminster system has never been fussy about strict adherence to representation by population. Nor, I might add, would it be the first federal make-work scheme for Atlantic Canada, or close to the most wasteful.

We should expect a larger House of Commons to produce better government. One of the open secrets of Canadian politics is the flamboyant incompetence of most federal cabinet ministers. This is not a partisan point. Once you get past the handful of sage and competent ministers in any government, the talent level drops off like a continental shelf. Remember that it took electoral defeat to finally dislodge the cherubically vacuous Maryam Monsef from cabinet. 

The need for diversity in building a cabinet, especially regional diversity, already narrows the choice of ministers considerably. More MPs should increase the chances of quality appointments and reduce the need for tokenism. It’s simple math. Doubling the size of the House of Commons would mean more members in each region for a prime minister to choose from.

In the U.K., with 650 MPs, a prime minister with a majority government has at least 326 MPs from which to choose about 22 cabinet ministers and another 100 junior members of the ministry. The result is a generally (though not uniformly) higher quality of minister. (Yes, the U.K. population is almost double ours, but we are almost 40 times bigger. The constituency farthest from Westminster is Orkney and Shetland, about 1000 km away; the same drive starting in Ottawa and heading West wouldn’t even get you out of Ontario.) 

The flip side of a larger caucus that offers more choices for cabinet is that also leaves more members out of cabinet. That is a good thing for national governance because a large backbench is a restless backbench. In the U.K., having more MPs with little or no chance of cabinet appointment has meant more independence and a stronger sense of collective backbench identity. This comes closer to replicating J.A.G. Griffith’s“John Aneurin Grey Griffith, FBA (14 October 1918 – 8 May 2010) was a Welsh legal scholar.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._A._G._Griffith idea of a parliament divided into three parts—government, opposition, and backbench—with a government that has to worry as much about members behind it as those across from it.

Johnson worries that more MPs means more “idle hands” creating make-work for themselves, but in the larger British parliament, those idle hands have been put to productive use on much stronger parliamentary committees. This includes genuinely independent and bipartisan specialist committees like the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, which would be unthinkable in the Canadian parliament.

I understand the instinctive skepticism about what looks like a proposal for larger government. But one lesson I learned working inside government is that more political oversight usually means better government, not necessarily more government. Or to return to the terms of the political menagerie, a bigger House of Commons would mean more watchdogs and fewer sheep. 

Steve Lafleur: The federal government’s new tax-free home savings account won’t increase housing affordability

Commentary

Based on the Trudeau government’s recent budget,Making Housing More Affordable there’s some good news and some bad news on the housing policy front. The good news is that Ottawa explicitly recognized that Canada needs more housing units, in-line with evidence that Canada is dead last in the G7 in terms of the number of housing units per person.“Canada has the lowest number of housing units per 1,000 residents of any G7 country. The number of housing units per 1,000 Canadians has been falling since 2016 owing to the sharp rise in population growth. An extra 100 thousand dwellings would have been required to keep the ratio of housing units to population stable since 2016—leaving us still well below the G7 average.” https://www.scotiabank.com/ca/en/about/economics/economics-publications/post.other-publications.housing.housing-note.housing-note–may-12-2021-.html The bad news is that Ottawa is throwing fuel on the fire by stimulating the demand side of the housing market. 

Prices in housing markets, like all markets, are set by supply and demand. A sharp increase in the quantity of housing units built should put downward pressure on housing prices. By contrast, an increase in the demand for housing units should increase the price of housing. Given the rapid escalation in housing pricesTeranet–National Bank House Price Index not only in Vancouver and Toronto but in other parts of the country that used to be somewhat immune to rapid price appreciations, it’s pretty clear Canada needs more housing units. 

The Trudeau government, unfortunately, is targeting the demand side of the market in two main ways.

First, a two-year freeze on foreign homebuyers, which is unlikely to move the needle on the demand side since most people who buy homes in Canada are Canadian (in other words, not foreigners) or are exempt from the ban (foreign students, for example).

Secondly, and most importantly, a new Tax-Free First Home Savings Account, which will actually increase housing demand. The account is essentially a hybrid of a Tax Free Savings Account and an RRSP. Contributions to the account are tax deductible (like an RRSP) but withdrawals are tax exempt (like a TFSA). This means that savings for home down payments will be more tax friendly than retirement savings. In other words, the federal government is incentivizing people to allocate more money to the housing market precisely when it’s running hot. 

The new savings account also means that, at the margins, some people will contribute money to down payments that they might otherwise put into a TFSA or RRSP. In other words, it will encourage people to concentrate more of their assets into housing rather than diversifying their assets by investing in bonds and equities. It’s not clear why we should want people to be more reliant on high housing prices to fund their retirements. 

Of course, this new account might seem appealing to some people locked out of the housing market. But adding more participants to bidding wars doesn’t help buyers in the end—it helps sellers by allowing people to bid up prices even more. Giving more money to 10 people bidding on nine houses doesn’t make a tenth house appear.

To be fair, the federal government has a limited set of tools at its disposal to deal with housing prices. But those tools do exist. For instance, there have been proposals from the Conservative Party to tie infrastructure spending to increasing housing density.The conservative case for federal intervention in housing And even this latest federal budget includes a Housing Accelerator Fund aimed at cutting through red tape and local NIMBYism. One proposal is a stick, the other is a carrot. But they both show how Ottawa can help boost the housing supply. That isn’t to say that we should let municipal and provincial governments off the hook—these two levels of government have a great say in the amount of new housing that gets built. But we shouldn’t pretend that Ottawa is a passive victim of circumstances either.

In the end, however, the only thing that will really move the needle on housing affordability is building more homes. While the Trudeau budget includes measures that will hopefully encourage more supply, they’re undermined by new policies that encourage more demand. Throwing water with one hand and gasoline with the other isn’t likely to put out the fire. 

Steve Lafleur is a senior policy analyst with the Fraser Institute.