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Tories take over as party of Big Government

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 22, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper's Conservatives want more government – and their base is not rattled. The Liberals, meanwhile, are demanding less.

It's become a case of political turnaround as the Tories are pushing to add 30 seats to the Commons at a big cost to taxpayers. The Grits, however, want take away seats from some provinces and give them to others, asserting the country can't afford to support more MPs.

The argument is familiar although the players have switched sides. In the past, it's been the Conservatives railing against more politicians, not the Liberals.

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In 1985, Brian Mulroney's government struggled with having to expand the Commons – and decided to nix the idea.

At that time, the late Ray Hnatyshn was government House leader. He tabled a White Paper on Redistribution of Electoral Ridings, arguing it would cost taxpayers $321,000 a year for an average MP. (Back then MPs earned $53,200 a year. Now, they earn $157,000.)

According to a report in The Globe, Mr. Hnatyshyn made "a desperate plea to his fellow parliamentarians not to increase the size of the House of Commons because, at the going rate for MPs, the country can ill afford it."

The existing law at the time would have seen the House increase to 310 MPs from 282 over 10 years, but Mr. Hnatyshyn recommended the Commons be increased to only 295 by the year 2001. The Representation Act, 1985, came into effect in March of the following year and it slowed the growth of the Commons.

About 10 years later, then-premier Mike Harris brought in the Fewer Politicians Act. It reduced the number of seats in the Ontario Legislature to 103 from 130.

Fast forward to 2011, and Marc Garneau and Stéphane Dion are arguing against Commons expansion. The Liberals argue that 30 new MPs – 15 to Ontario, six each in British Columbia and Alberta, and three to Quebec, as the Tories propose – would cost between $14.8-million and $18.2-million a year. And it would cost $11.5-million for each election.

Mr. Garneau made a plea not to increase the seats beyond the current 308. His rationale? "It would be better and less expensive," he said. "Canadians say they don't want more MPs."

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The two Quebeckers proposed a new plan that would that would take seats away from some provinces and give them to others. It calls for Quebec to lose three seats from its existing 75; Manitoba and Saskatchewan would lose two seats, from 14 to 12; and Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia would lose a seat each. But Ontario would gain four seats; British Columbia would gain two and Alberta three.

Tom Flanagan, a former Harper chief of staff and mentor who is a political science professor at the University of Calgary, dismisses the political turnabout. He is not upset by the Conservative call for bigger government and he criticizes the Liberal plan as one that could precipitate bloodshed.

"The suggestion by Stéphane Dion to keep the size of the House constant is superficially interesting but politically infeasible and probably not made in good faith," he told The Globe. "Trying to take away seats from Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland would precipitate the mother of all brawls and would get in the way of all other legislation the government is trying to pass."

Prof. Flanagan says the cost of adding the extra seats is "negligible" and that Canada's House of Commons is not large in comparison to other parliamentary systems, including France, Italy and Germany.

Meanwhile, the government's so-called Fair Representation Act is being studied – and criticized – at a parliamentary committee. It's a priority bill for the government that wants to see it passed before Christmas.

"The government has a strong, stable, national majority government and an opportunity to address the significant and increasing underrepresentation of Canadians living in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta," said Kate Davis, spokeswoman for Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal. "If nothing is done, Canadians living in the fastest-growing provinces will only become more and more underrepresented under the status-quo. This, clearly, is not fair."

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Ms. Davis noted that "unlike the Liberal proposal, our plan does not pit one part of the country against another."

Perhaps, but it's going to get messy. An insider familiar with redistribution says it's much harder on the governing party as sitting MPs will have to form new riding associations, go through nomination battles and figure out how their riding funding is redistributed as constituencies are reconfigured and boundaries are redrawn.

It's a nightmare, the insider said.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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