Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Drivel watch: The Citizen on rep-by-pop

A couple of weeks ago John Ibbitson in the Globe was publishing nonsense about the re-apportionment of parliamentary seats. Now it's Andrew Potter in the Ottawa Citizen. When smart, concerned reporters like these deal in such crazy misconceptions, something is seriously wrong.

"The Fathers of Confederation recognized that the strict principle of equal representation had to be balanced against the country’s geographic, cultural, political and demographic realities," writes Potter, warming up for a diatribe against shocking inequalities in representation he sees in the current Parliament.

But the confederation makers took representation by population very seriously! Their refusal to give Prince Edward Island more House seats than its population warranted was a key reason why the island stayed out of confederation in 1864. The Senate could be unequal in representation, but the Senate was powerless, and designed to be so. In the House, the seat of legitimacy, equality prevailed. Despite Potter, it still does.

It is true that the strict principle of representation-by-population has frequently been breached since the confederation settlement in 1864 -- but mostly only at the margins. It is true that thinly-populated areas of rural Canada have long become over-represented. But we are an urban society, and the overwhelming bulk of parliamentary seats are urban. The slight tendency to shelter rural voters from the strict consequences of representation-by-population does not threaten that reality. The electoral inequalities that have been accepted have hardly given Northern Ontario and rural Saskatchewan some terrible dead hand upon our political life. (For one thing, rural MPs, like urban MPs, almost never vote according to local interests; they vote as their party tells them. Remember?) The "substantial skewing" of Parliament is imaginary.

The nefarious redistribution legislation Potter fears may be in the works is simply the logical outcome of a highly egalitarian process. Every decade, after a census, an apolitical review reallocates seats to conform to population change, and every decade Parliament passes a bill to incorporate those changes. Yes, some protection for rural voters will endure. No, it's not an evil plot.

It turns out Potter actually likes the idea of some kinds of inequality. Much less committed to the principle of rep-by-pop than the confederation-makers were, he's prepared to consider guaranteeing a permanent share of House seats to Quebec regardless of population. But Quebec's share of House seats has been slowly declining ever since confederation (Ontario's too) and catastrophe has not resulted, since Quebec's essential requirements in Confederation are reinforced less by numbers in the House than by constitutional protection and provincial powers.

Perhaps most astonishing, Potter reports "the principle of strict egalitarianism is an American import." You know, we live close to the United States, we are bathed in their media, we see their political system at work every day. Can we not see what is before our eyes? The American Senate, for instance. Unlike ours, it is a hugely powerful body, but one where Wyoming and South Dakota, with a couple of million people between them, have four senators, and California, with forty million or so, has two. Things are only different in degree in the House of Representatives. In Canada, Potter wrings his hands over a reapportionment of seats guided by a non-political commission responding to census changes. In the United States, members of congress create their own districts by a backroom process call "redistricting," the result of which is quite remarkable rates of incumbency.

Update, October 13: Andrew Potter responds. "Honestly, I've never had someone so completely misrepresent my views before. Have you lost your mind, Moore?"

Update, October 16: Andrew Potter and I have been corresponding, and he urges attention to this Institute for Research on Public Policy paper "Is Every Ballot Equal?" by Michael Pal and Sujit Choudhry, a key source for arguments that the post-confederation protections for rural voters have "substantially skewed" the rep-by-pop principle. Good idea.
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