Tuesday, September 12, 2006

'Rest of B.C.' faces electoral squeeze play

VICTORIA - Get ready for some anguished howls from rural B.C. as the Electoral Boundaries Commission starts overhauling the province's ridings.
The commission is heading out on the road this month, the first steps towards an overhaul of riding boundaries for the 2009 election. It's going to be a painful process for people in much of the province.
We're supposed to have a fair system of electing MLAs, with all voters having roughly equal influence and representation.
But we don't. The three ridings in the northwest - North Coast, Skeena, Bulkley Valley-Stikine - have 92,000 people and send three MLAs to Victoria.
In Vancouver, three ridings - Burrard, Hastings and Point Grey - have twice as many people, but also send three MLAs to Victoria. The votes of people in those ridings are worth half as much - at least in terms of electing a government - as people in the northwest.
There are reasons for the inequity. Liberal Lorne Mayencourt represents some 75,000 people in his Vancouver-Burrard riding; New Democrat Gary Coons about 28,000 in the North Coast riding.
But Mayencourt's riding is nine square kilometres; he can cover it with a $7 cab ride. North Coast is 66,000 square kilometres. It's hard to represent people spread out over such an area.
There's an argument for slacking off on the principle of rep by pop. The question is how far do you go? In a close election, should voters in the north have twice as much weight in deciding which party forms government?
Those are the questions the boundaries commission will struggle with over the next 18 months. The commission - Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld and retired school administrator Stewart Ladyman of Penticton - has to come up with recommended changes to the current electoral boundaries.
They have a big task. In an attempt to head off legal challenges, the province has established principles. True representation by population would mean all ridings would have the same population. The legislature has decided that it will allow riding size to vary by plus or minus 25 per cent. The commission can recommend ridings larger or smaller than those guidelines "In very special circumstances."
The last commission, which reported in 1999, recommended six ridings be granted special consideration. That was mostly based on the vast geographic distances in remote ridings, but also on the effect of stripping representation away from northern voters.
Since then the population shift has continued. My count indicates three Lower Mainland ridings are too large, given the 25-per--cent rule. Ten ridings have too few people.
Fortunately, the commission isn't forced to cut the number of ridings in the North and Interior to add MLAs in the Lower Mainland. It's mandate includes the right to propose adding up to six seats, taking the legislature from 79 to 85 MLAs. That provides the opportunity to reduce the size of some of the Lower Mainland ridings without cutting back on representation from the rest of the province.
There will still be power shift. The regions' influence will be reduced by the new urban seats. (What ever happened to all that Heartland talk, anyway?)
But the principle of representation by population will be preserved.
This particular commission has another huge challenge. It has been asked to come up with proposed electoral boundaries that could be used if British Columbians decide they would prefer proportional representation to the current system. Another referendum on the single-transferable-vote system will be held along with the provincial election in 2009.
It's a wise move by Premier Gordon Campbell. The change was approved by 58 per cent of voters in 2005, just short of the required 60-per-cent. Campbell decided to put the question to the people again, this time with more information.
But it means much more work for the commission.
The commission is on its way to communities around the province over the next two months. It's well worth paying attention to its work.
Footnote: Questions around representation quickly become complex. A political party in B.C., once this redistribution is complete, may be able to form government without a single seat outside the Lower Mainland and Victoria. But party which has its support concentrated in the rest of the province will be doomed to outsider status. That's a profound change in the political landscape over the course of a few decades.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the referendum on the new voting system being held in 2008 in conjunction with the next municipal election, not the 2009 provincial election as mentioned in the post?

Anonymous said...

Its time for Vancouver Island to Separate from BC. Or Better yet separate The Fraser Valley and Vancouver from the rest as they really don't care about anything outside of the Lower Mainland