Friday, August 19, 2011

Strange Days Indeed: Nycole Turmel and the NDP Oppose Necessary Democratic Reforms

There used to be a time that the NDP could be counted on to put the democratic interests of our nation ahead of partisan politics. Apparently, that’s no longer the case. Rather than endorsing the federal Conservative’s attempt to bring a little more balance to the electoral playing field, for reasons known only to the NDP, interim Leader Nycole Turmel has instead voiced opposition. What’s going on?

Here’s the issue. In Canada, we like to think that we have relatively equal representation based on population. Fact is, we never had, due to concerns about balancing regional interests. However, things have got so far out of whack over the past couple of decades, that it’s high time that Canada set aside some more seats in parliament for members to represent a growing population.

Right now, the average size of a federal electoral district (riding) is about 97,000 people. However, there are significant variations in some ridings. In PEI, where there are 3 federal ridings, the smallest has about 34,000 people. However, in the interests of regional fairness, Canada has long-tolerated its smallest province sending a disproportionate number of representatives to Ottawa.

In contrast, Canada’s most populous riding, Brampton West, has over 170,000 people. And while that’s the largest, other ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, in Vancouver metropolitan area, and in Calgary and Edmonton, also have populations significantly above the 97,000 average. Of course, this has happened for two reasons: the first is that these areas are the fastest-growing parts of our country; the second is because we’ve now re-drawn riding boundaries or added new ridings in quite some time now.

If this were only a PEI versus the rest of Canada issue, likely we’d be able to live with Canada’s smallest province continuing to send it’s 3 MP’s to Ottawa. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about whether we value everyone’s vote in relatively the same way. Right now, because of the demographic imbalance in suburban ridings in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., it’s clear that we don’t. If you lived in one of those over-populated ridings, how would it make you feel to know that your vote matters less than in most other Canadian ridings? And your vote would matter less, because it would take a significantly higher number of like-minded voters to elect your preferred candidate.

This issue has been on the backburner since the Supreme Court of Canada condemned the government for inaction back in 1991. Things have only got a lot worse since then.

During the last parliament, the Conservative minority government had brought forward legislation which would have added additional seats to parliament – 18 in Ontario, 5 in Alberta, and 7 in B.C. The Liberals and the NDP were very cool to the proposal at that time, and even the Conservatives themselves didn’t pursue the plan with any sense of urgency. The Bloc Quebecois were clear with their opposition, as it offered nothing to benefit Quebec.

Yet, the plan would have addressed part of the democratic deficit which exists in suburban ridings in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. Why the lukewarm perception, when the plan would have empowered voters?

Well, the Liberals didn’t like it because it would have added seats in Alberta which they felt they couldn’t win. At the time, they were also concerned about the Conservatives making inroads in the Greater Toronto area, where most of Ontario’s new seats would be created. And suburban Vancouver wasn’t exactly a hot-spot of Liberal support either. Of course, we found out during the last election that the Liberal’s fears were well-founded.

The NDP has had a lot of problems in the Greater Toronto Area, and have had little success at all in Alberta. That was two strikes against the plan. While they might have been competitive in new seats in suburban Vancouver, potential gains there would have been off-set by MP’s elected for other parties in the new ridings in Ontario and Alberta.

The Conservatives, who brought the plan forward, clearly had the most to gain from its implementation. However, as the recent election results have borne out, they didn’t need the plan to end up with a majority government.

Now, however, they’re bringing the plan forward again. And with their majority, we’re likely to see new seats added, which will in part address the current circumstances in over-populated ridings. Although these ridings may be in parts of our country which have a tendency to vote for the Conservative Party a little more so than for other parties, it shouldn’t matter. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s high time that it were done.

Of course, a much better proposal would be to introduce a form of proportional representation. If the Conservatives really cared about the democratic deficit, they would be doing a lot more than shifting voters around into new ridings. They would be trying to find real ways to empower voters, making sure that every vote really does count.

But within the narrow and archaic confines of our first-past-the-post electoral system, ensuring that we generally have “representation by population” makes sense. Which is why the Conservative Party’s plan would lead to a healthier democratic outcome.

So why is the NDP opposing it?

Well, Turmel says that there should be more study. And that issues relating to representation of rural and northern regions should be better assessed, along with First Nations.

For goodness sakes, though, what does that really mean? If Turmel is concerned about finding a “balance” for population-challenged rural areas, and slow-growth northern ridings, what does that really mean? It means that she and NDP can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that there’s been a demographic shift in Canada, away from the rural heartland and into urban centres. Does she not want to acknowledge this shift? Does she endorse the notion that somehow votes in rural ridings should be worth more than those of urban voters?

In short, her response is what they refer to in politics as “smoke and mirrors”. She raises issues which aren’t issues at all, because she doesn’t want to say why the NDP really opposes the Conservative redistribution plan.

Let’s be clear about this: urban areas in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. are under-represented in parliament at the expense of rural and northern areas. Given this circumstance, how can further study better assess the representational needs of rural and northern areas? Further study would lead only to the same conclusions: residents in rural and northern areas are over-represented in parliament, and that’s not democratic.

Again, the NDP’s real reasons for opposing more democracy have to do with the fact the ridings being added are generally ones where the NDP will not be competitive in the next election. They will be in areas where the Conservatives have proven to be the strongest of Canada’s 4 national parties in terms of vote tallies. With more ridings in Ontario and Alberta, it’s much less likely that the NDP will form government.

I say: so be it. Our political parties need to start acting in the real interests of Canadians, and not in their own interests. And while the NDP under Turmel is setting the most egregious example of any of the parties, the fact that it has taken this long for a plan to move forward (and it’s still not approved) shows that the Liberals and the Conservatives must shoulder some of the blame. And the Bloc’s outrageous opposition to more seats where population growth warrants them - simply because Quebec’s population has remained largely stagnant – is indefensible.

Of course, the NDP just experienced a massive electoral breakthrough in Quebec, and the Bloc has been reduced to a tiny rump. I guess there may be another political reason for former-Bloc member turned party Leader Turmel to champion the existing democratic deficit. If the NDP has any hope of retaining wide support in Quebec, it’s going to have to be a champion of Quebec’s interests, despite what might be in the democratic interests of all Canadians.

Turmel’s opposition to democracy is sparking outrage across the nation. The Toronto Star, which endorsed Jack Layton and the NDP in the last election, has a scathing editorial about Turmel, and especially her use of the term “divisive” to describe a plan which would actually lead to a more equitable outcome. Jeffrey Simpson has gone one step further, identifying that the regions where ridings are proposed to be added are areas where Canada’s newest citizens are much more likely to be found. Simpson finds it inexplicable that the NDP is refusing to stand up for the rights of hard-working immigrants who face significant barriers to public participation.

If Turmel and the NDP really wanted to go after the Harper Conservatives on the democratic health of our nation, she should have said something about getting rid of our current electoral system. Instead, she chose to advance an argument which doesn’t make any sense, in defence of the indefensible. She chose instead to safeguard the interests of NDP voters, at the expense of looking out for the health of all voters.

And that’s just wrong.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


ck said...

NDP's opposition to democracy?? We have the Conservatives riding roughshod, doing anything they like with their supporters following like blind sheep to the slaughter house, while the Conservatives pull all kinds of stunts. Mega-prisons, G8 slush funds, in and out, document doctoring, warrantless internet spying, Canada's most wanted, mainstream bigotry, authoritarianism. Yet, you appear to be endorsing a longer time with this government. You do realize that if the seats are added, the jerrymandering that will ensue? The ridings will be drawn in such a way that Stephen Harper will rule, well, either until he dies or he's ruined Canada to his wildest dreams.

As for Quebec, I did the math. 30 more seats would amount to 22% of the total seats going to Quebec, thus, Quebec being underrepresented, yet, somehow, I get the feeling folks will be just peachy keen with that. Yikes!

I'm glad someone is looking out for our interests, because, as time goes on, Harper is becoming more and more offensive to us.

Canadian silver bug/Green Assassin Brigade said...

I don't like redistribution because it convinces a lot of people who've been fed shit by my MP that balanced ridings= proportional representation.

Everytime PR was mentioned during the campaign Lois Brown would go on a rant about how some votes counted more than others and how Ontario was getting the shaft.
Redistribution tells the public that we've made the system fairer so you can all STFU about electoral reform.

If your goal is to show how the system is flawed let it break down, don't keep adding more stucco over the cracks.

Turmel however seems unable or unwilling to detail her objections, which as temp leader of the offical opposition is certainly a fail..

Sudbury Steve said..., let's see if I've got this right. It makes sense for the NDP not to support adding more ridings in under-represented urban areas because: a) doing so will mean more ridings for Harper and the Conservatives to win; and, b) because Harper and the Conservatives are the real enemies of democracy.

So, rather than attempt to enfranchise more Canadians, you're advocating that it's better for democracy if people who *might* vote Conservative continue to have less electoral power than other Canadians, because by voting Conservative, they're undermining Canada?

Look, I'm with you on all of the bad things the Cons have done for democracy. But I can't buy into the notion that it's better to do nothing about enfranchisement because we think these new ridings will go Conservative.

Maybe the other parties need to get their acts together and put some effort into ensuring that the Conservatives don't win these ridings. Perhaps looking at no-compete opportunities would be a start.

Their are better solutions out there. Maintaining the status quo in ridings like Brampton West, however, just isn't a plausible option any longer.