For the sake of a healthy democracy, Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission needs to extend submissions deadline

Posted on January 11, 2017, 2:35 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley … where your vote counts for more than  double! (Town of Fairview photo.) Below: Progress Alberta’s Duncan Kinney, NDP House Leader Brian Mason, Justice Myra Bielby of the Alberta Court of Appeal and former Progressive Conservative Deputy Premier Doug Horner.

By trying to ensure the boundaries of Alberta’s 87 electoral districts are reviewed in an orderly and responsible way, the province’s Electoral Boundaries Commission risks putting the bureaucratic cart before the democratic horse.

The commission, which by law must by law review provincial constituency boundaries with population changes in mind by Halloween this year, has scheduled 15 hearings and asked for written submissions from interested Albertans by Feb. 8.

kinneyThe problem with this well-intentioned arrangement is that Statistics Canada has now set the same date to publish the first population results from its 2016 census.

So, as Duncan Kinney of Progress Alberta pointed out in a letter to his group’s supporters, “if the commission does not push back its deadline and does not give Albertans the time to analyze and consider the latest census data this first round of written submissions will be of poor quality, of little use to the commission and ultimately a waste of its time and of the time of Albertans who are going to the effort of participating in this critical process.”

Mr. Kinney may have overstated the potential impact on the value of submissions somewhat, but the fundamental problem he has identified is real, and the simple solution he proposes makes sense. To wit: “The commission needs to push back the deadline for written submissions a few weeks to Feb. 28, 2017 in order to give Albertans the necessary time to consider and analyze the latest data and integrate it into their submissions.”

It is an irony that the one part of the process the commission could not control – the part in the hands of a federal agency – is the one part that has gone awry.

masonAlberta’s Opposition parties are likely to ruthlessly exploit anything that goes wrong for any reason to try to make it appear as if the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley is trying to gain from the process.

This too is ironic, because history tells us that electoral boundary commissions set up by Alberta conservative governments have a long and sordid history of doing what they can to tilt the playing field in favour of conservative MLAs.

As the Globe and Mail reported, there were many complaints about the partisan nature of the Progressive Conservative Government’s approach to electoral boundary changes in 2010, the year of the last review, which seemed to be designed to meet the minimum legal requirements while favouring reliably conservative sparsely populated rural ridings.

bielbyLiberals and New Democrats “charge that the new boundaries are gerrymandered to favour the PCs, while ignoring urban voters and failing to anticipate population growth over the next decade,” the Globe said, referring to a letter on government letterhead by former Deputy Premier Doug Horner urging commission members to make partisan boundary changes. (Mr. Horner later apologized.)

The result of this attitude: Edmonton, which has plenty of progressive voters, got fewer seats than it ought. Rural areas arguably have more. There is also a legacy of crazy riding boundaries, like the toenail-shaped slice of St. Albert appended to the smaller city of Spruce Grove several kilometres away, the riding once represented by Mr. Horner as it happens.

However, according to some knowledgeable observers, the problem is not as severe as it once was.

According to the courts, riding populations are not supposed to vary more than 25 per cent – a margin that is far too large. But in Alberta, where the law allows four ridings to exceed those guidelines, that rule could be honoured in the breach.

hornerSo, for example, if you live in Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, Alberta’s least populous riding, your vote is worth about 2.5 times more than if you live in Calgary North-West. About a quarter of Alberta’s ridings, all in rural areas, have populations substantially below the provincial average.

Government House Leader Brian Mason said 16 years ago the variance should be no more than 10 per cent. He was right then and he’s still right. But with the next Alberta election likely to be hard fought, it shouldn’t take a political science degree to figure out why the present boundary arrangement works for conservatives.

It should come as no surprise that voters in rural ridings – and Wildrose and PC strategists doing the electoral math – are deeply worried about the possibility of a comprehensive and fair redistribution process.

After all, the population of Alberta has grown about 20 per cent in less than a decade and, face it, most of those folks didn’t move to Manyberries, Vegreville or Zama City.

Al Kemmer, president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, told the Calgary Herald this week his organization fears, in the words of the reporter, “redistribution by population could shift seats from rural to urban, leading to potentially sprawling ridings in the countryside and affecting representation.”

Well, that’s a problem if you buy into the cost-control zeitgeist and decide, as the government apparently has, that there must be no additional seats.

But it’s not as serious a problem as significantly and consistently undervaluing urban votes and pretending democracy is working just fine, as we have long done in Alberta.

The first step to getting this right is making sure Albertans have the most up-to-date information when the make submissions to the five-member commission, headed by Justice Myra Bielby of the Alberta Court of Appeal.

By law, the commission’s chair is appointed by the lieutenant governor, two members by the premier and two by the Opposition leader. Members of the Legislature must vote to approve the proposals of the Commission, with or without amendments, before they can be implemented.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

15 Comments to: For the sake of a healthy democracy, Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission needs to extend submissions deadline

  1. Brian knight

    January 11th, 2017

    Why not just split the 34 federal tidings into two, giving a 68 seat legislature. If you want 87 ridings have 19 seats allocated by PR.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 11th, 2017

      Too sensible. Would put determination of Alberta ridings in the hands of Liberals in Ottawa. We’re a federation, dontcha know?

      Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      January 11th, 2017

      Delightfully simple, Brian. I love it. Besides, the money saved would make the fiscal conservatives happy – wouldn’t it?

      Reply
  2. PIGL

    January 11th, 2017

    Why should the number of seats not increase if the population increases? Why would the NDP paint themselves into such a corner? Why not adopt a legitimate procedure that would remove one of the main disadvantages under which they have laboured for decades? Why should urban voters be disenfranchised? So that the rural voters, or their political representatives, will stop with the hysterical shrieking? They never, ever will. So do the right thing, for chrissakes. This is one of the rare cases where justice and self interest are the same thing.

    Reply
    • Ryan H

      January 11th, 2017

      Because if the seats had increased along with the population of Alberta my back of the napkin math says we would have gone from 25 seats 100 years ago to 280 right now. Even if we just increase them based on 1986 to now it would be 158.

      Even if it incurred no other expenses, we would have to totally re-build the legislature just to sit them all.

      This isn’t an add 5 seats kind of thing. And if it was, you’d have to add them all to urban areas which would kick off as big a ruckus as redistributing would.

      Reply
      • PIGL

        January 13th, 2017

        And this would be a problem because…..

        Yes, 280 seats might be a lot, but there’s probably a intermediate number that would a) account for population increase and b) stop giving the rural voters a veto power that they do not deserve.

        Reply
  3. Bob Raynard

    January 11th, 2017

    Personally I would be satisfied if they equalized the riding size regardless of which census data they use.

    The PC spin masters used to argue that rural ridings needed to be smaller by population because they were so huge geographically for one MLA to try and cover. Yet our federal members of parliament seem to manage.

    I wonder if the PCs still feel rural ridings need to be smaller, now that the Wildrose has taken their rural support base, and PC support seems to be more in Calgary.

    The commission is taking email submissions: [email protected].

    Reply
  4. January 11th, 2017

    Likewise, British Columbia’s constituency boundaries need re-shaping. I, however, find it difficult to imagine how Alberta might benefit by moving closer to 100 constituencies. The province already has about the same number as BC with about a third of the population. Apples and oranges surely but from this distance 87 seems a big enough number.

    Reply
  5. J.E. Molnar

    January 11th, 2017

    When it came to the Tories and the review of electoral boundaries over the years, they apparently had a favourite saying — “Gerrymandering is the gift that keeps on giving.”

    If more MLAs are required because of a growing population in the urban or rural centres, then they should be added in time for the 2019 election. Democracy is too important to devalue and economize. I also agree with an extension to assess the new StansCan figures.

    Reply
  6. Joe

    January 11th, 2017

    Mr. Beer n Hockey, your statemeny is way way off. Alberta has about 4,300,000 people, BC has about 4,800,000. So when you say we have “a third of BC’s population”, you are quite wrong. We have about 9/10s of their population.

    Reply
    • January 12th, 2017

      Thanks for correcting me. That’s more than 10% less than BC. which still suggests the number of of folks you have travelling back and forth from their homes and Edmonton or elsewhere is plenty enough. With populations as close as that perhaps we should forego the Rose/Con marriage and set straight to marrying Miss Alberta with Miss BC. A match made, if not Heaven, in a bar very near closing time.

      Reply
  7. Andy M.

    January 11th, 2017

    Let’s please reduce the discrepancies between the value of rural and urban votes. But, continually adding to the numbers of provincial reps in the Legislature as the population grows does not necessarily strengthen democracy. MLAs not in the cabinet are to some extent ciphers or nonentities, with their extensive offices but bound by caucus discipline and the power of the whip (yes, even within our blessed NDP government which hasn’t massively changed control mechanisms over its MLAs).

    Reply
  8. jerrymacgp

    January 11th, 2017

    Just a quibble: that sparsely-populated riding in the northwest is called Dunvegan-Central Peace-Notley, not just Dunvegan-Central Peace. It’s was named not after the current Premier, but her father, who represented that area until his tragic death in a plane crash near High Prairie in 1984. One of the other passengers on that ill-fated flight was Hon. Larry Shaben, a cabinet minister in the Getty PC government of the day who had the distinction of being the first Muslim cabinet minister in North America, and whose daughter Carol wrote a gripping book about the crash, Into The Abyss. (If you haven’t read it, you should).

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 12th, 2017

      Thanks for the reminder, Jerry, that that reference had to be fixed. DJC

      Reply
  9. Sam Gunsch

    January 12th, 2017

    In my usual pessimistic perspective, I’m speculating that progressive AB voters of any stripe will come to regret that the NDP failed to implement proportional representation.

    Ending the rural ridings excessive advantage is vital for a democratic system but sticking with FPTP is still likely going to going to lead to putting AB’s public policy back in the hands of the petro-industry/conservative coalition, barring a miraculous increase in oil prices by mid-2018 that puts a lot of Calgarians back to work.

    Reply

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