“Walk the Line”

Last week, Saskatchewan’s Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission tabled its Final Report in Parliament.

Normally, nobody would really care.  The appropriate parliamentary committee would look at it, a few members would voice their concerns and dissent, but the boundaries proposed by the Commission would be upheld, and subsequently passed by Parliament and enforced.

Not this time.

There’s a delicious fight brewing over Saskatchewan’s proposed new boundaries.  The Commission recommended the abandonment of mixed rural/urban districts in favour of exclusive rural and urban ones due in large fact to the fact that Regina and Saskatoon are growing at a substantially faster rate than the rest of the province.  Right now, there are no purely urban federal electoral districts in the province.

Over the summer, there was a debate in the Editorials section of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and the Regina Leader-Post between Conservative MPs and academics over the proposed districts.  The academics mostly argued that sole urban districts better represented urban issues.[1]

Conservative MPs basically argued there is no urban interest in Saskatchewan, and that splitting the electoral districts into exclusive urban and rural districts would be “divisive.”[2]

I wrote a paper about electoral boundaries last semester, so I am more than a little curious to see how this battle plays out.

The proposed electoral boundaries were supported by each of the three commissioners.  One is a Saskatchewan judge, as mandated by the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.  The second is Professor John C. Courtney, one of Canada’s preeminent scholars on Canadian elections, both federal and provincial.  However, David Maritt, President of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities and the third commissioner, did not sign on to the Final Report and wrote a dissenting opinion.  Colby Cosh believes this is the first time this has happened under the current federal electoral boundaries commission system.

In my paper, I wrote:

Note that David Marit, President of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, is a member of Saskatchewan’s Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission; it is difficult to see him supporting a proposal that would impair rural representation.

I was right.

Interestingly, the last Commission made the same recommendation in 2002,[3] but reversed its position because of the “overwhelming” rejection that surfaced during the public hearing process.[4]  But it’s important to note that the Commission realized that it’s generally only those that disagree with a proposed change to come out to speak against it; those that agree with the change do not usually speak for it.

In his dissenting opinion, Marit wrote that he was “very concerned about voter apathy.”  He believes:

There will be voter confusion in the next election and possibly in the election after that. At a time when it is difficult to encourage voter turnout, changing the boundaries so drastically and causing voter confusion will only diminish that turnout.

So we should never change anything because it’s too confusing?  And I think changing the boundaries will encourage more people to vote because the results likely won’t be a foregone conclusion like they are now.

The big question is: how would these changes actually affect voting outcomes?

Aaron Wherry posits that, using last election’s results, the NDP would likely win two seats, come within 5% of another two and within 10% of another one.  So that puts 5 seats in play (6 if you count Liberal Ralph Goodale’s seat).

Look at the last election’s results:

Party Vote Percentage (Provincial) Votes (Provincial) Seats Won
Conservatives 56.3% 265,004 13
Liberals   8.6%   38,981 1
NDP 32.3% 147,084 0

So yes, voting outcomes would be affected in a significant way.

Obviously the Conservatives aren’t thrilled.

Last week a series of robocalls went out to Saskatchewan residents asserting that the proposed boundary changes are an affront to “Saskatchewan values.”  At first the Conservatives denied that they were involved in the robocalls, yet four days later they copped to being responsible for them.  Conservative MP Brad Trost doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the robocalls.  In Question Period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper argued that the Conservatives had followed the rules, citing “overwhelming opposition” to the new boundaries.

That “overwhelming opposition” doesn’t appear to exist.  As Leslie MacKinnon wrote:

But that is not the conclusion of the majority of members of the Saskatchewan commission that held hearings on suggested changes to electoral ridings. The proposals prescribe, among other things, that five ridings in Regina and Saskatoon have their borders redrawn so they become urban-only districts.

The Saskatchewan commission, in its final report issued in December, noted that it heard 230 public submissions, far more than it had expected, and found that “a majority opposed the proposal.” However, it said, a “significant minority supported it,” without giving any figures. The commission also reported it had been sent 3,000 emails, including many identical postcards and petitions. It concluded, “Clearly, a large number of contacts were inspired by the encouragement of members of Parliament opposed to the abolition of rural-urban hybrid districts.”

The report went on to say, “The Commission has little doubt that the general public accepts the new electoral districts,” without giving any reasons why it believed this to be true.

However, it said, it had ignored contacts it considered were attempting to gain political advantage for any party.

I live in Saskatchewan, and I haven’t heard anyone complain about the proposed boundaries.

Furthermore, the Conservatives did not follow the rules.  The CRTC mandates that telemarketing calls identify the originator, which these calls did not.

The bigger question is whether political parties should interfere in what is supposed to be a non-partisan process.  The entire point of the electoral boundaries commission is to prevent political parties from using their influence to create boundaries that further their interests.  While the Conservatives aren’t doing anything that contravenes the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, ethically they’re in dubious territory.  Take it away MP Brent Rathgeber…

I have publically stated that it is inappropriate for Members of Parliament to actively lobby for or against a particular electoral map or configuration.  This has both an ethical and a practical aspect.  Ethically, I believe that MPs, who intend to run again, are in a complete conflict of interest when lobbying for or against a certain boundary configuration and therefore ought to recuse themselves from a conflict, real or perceived.  If I were to make a submission to the Boundary Commission, which if accepted, assisted in a narrow electoral victory, certainly allegations of gerrymander would follow thereafter.

By the way, Rathgeber is a Conservative MP.

At the end of the day, is this really a fight the Tories should be getting into?  It’s not as if they’ll lose their stranglehold on the Saskatchewan electorate.  The Conservatives’ tactics smack of hubris, of a party used to getting its own way.  Luckily for us, regardless of the concerns MPs make to Parliament, the Commission has the final say.  And hopefully it won’t listen to them.

[1] Charles Smith & David McGrane, “Sask. big cities need own MPs,” The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 19 April 2012, A7.  See also David McGrane et al, Submission to Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan, 13 April 2012, online: David McGrane <http://www.davidmcgrane.ca/pdf/Joint%20Submission%20to%20SK%20Federal%20Electoral%20Boundaries%20Commission,%20April%2013,%202012.pdf&gt; (1 December 2012).

[2] Joe Couture, “Boundary changes divide politicians; Liberals, NDP like proposal,” The Saskatoon-Star-Phoenix, 9 August 2012, A1.

[3] Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan, Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, Proposal, 2002 at 3-4, online: Elections Canada <http://www.elections.ca/scripts/fedrep/sask/proposals/47000proposal_e.pdf&gt; (1 December 2012).

[4] Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan, Report of the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan, 2002 at 2, online: Elections Canada <http://www.elections.ca/scripts/fedrep/sask/report/47000report_e.pdf&gt; (1 December 2012).  However, the Commission noted its “concerns” that the opposition was not necessarily representative of the entire province “because voters in agreement with a proposal tend not to make representations supporting it.”  But the Commission believed that the public hearing process under the EBRA “should be respect and that its decision should not be inconsistent with the submission that it heard” (ibid at 7).


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