Sensitive to opposition charges that a new bill adding 30 seats to the House of Commons will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, the Harper government is vowing to find savings by cutting MPs' office budgets.
"We'll be taking a look at our own backyard and try to determine how we run Parliament more efficiently," Dean Del Mastro, the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, told The Globe on Tuesday.
The Liberals have come out against the government's proposed addition of new seats – 15 to Ontario, six each to Alberta and British Columbia and three to Quebec – saying it would be too costly. They estimate it would cost taxpayers between $14.8-million and $18.2-million a year, plus $11.5-million for each election.
The Grits floated a proposal of their own this month that caps the Commons at its existing 308 seats but redistributes them among the provinces. "Canadians don't want more MPs," Quebec Liberal Marc Garneau argued at the time.
Mr. Del Mastro said the cost-cutting exercise will begin once the government's bill passes into law. There is a push on to get the legislation, which is still before the House, into the Senate and given royal assent before the Christmas break so that ridings can be realigned in time for the 2015 election.
The Peterborough Tory MP said some of the functions of Parliament can be "further scaled back to make sure we are not expanding overall expenditures." He even suggested a 10 per cent cut to office budgets is "an option" but added: "I don't think that's what we'll do."
MPs now have an annual office budget of $284,700. However, those who represent "densely populated constituencies" receive an "Elector Supplement," which ranges from $8,700 to $52,140. There's also a "Geographic Supplement" for MPs who represent constituencies of 500 square kilometres or more, which can range from $4,810 to $52,900.
The realignment, however, should eliminate the need for these added funds as larger ridings will likely be divided up and made more manageable to represent. Those funds would then be applied to the new MPs.
"I think people should be aware that if you are receiving a supplement that's not going to be there," Mr. Del Mastro said of the seat-redistribution plan.
This bill is tricky for Stephen Harper's team to defend. In fact, the Conservatives have found themselves in the unusual position of calling for more government as they square off against the Liberals, who are arguing for less.
But Mr. Del Mastro poked some holes in the Liberal plan, which calls for seats to be taken away from five provinces. (Quebec would lose three, Saskatchewan and Manitoba would be stripped of two apiece, and Nova Scotia and Newfoundland would each lose one. Of those nine, the Grits would give four to Ontario, three to Alberta and two to British Columbia.)
The Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary argues that formula will diminish the voice of rural Canada (Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and give more poser to provinces with bigger urban centres (Ontario and British Columbia). He also accused the Liberals of "not being honest about their motives" since being reduced to a handful of urban constituencies.
"If I asked people in my riding if they want to pay for 30 more MPs, I'm pretty sure they would say no," Mr. Del Mastro said. "If I asked them if they wanted voices from rural Canada to be taken away in favour of new voices from urban Canada, I think they would say no to that as well."