Saturday, October 13, 2007

Session should end electoral boundaries mystery

One of the interesting things to come in next week's fall legislature session will be Gordon Campbell's plan for new electoral boundaries.
The premier over-ruled the independent Electoral Boundaries Commission last month. He rejected the ridings the commissioners created under legislation intended to prevent political interference in the process. So far, the response to the Campbell's intervention has been mostly positive.
The commission's recommendations included adding five new ridings - four in the Lower Mainland and one in the Okanagan - to reflect population growth.
And it proposed reducing the number of seats in rural B.C. by three to offset the increase in growing areas. The legislature would have gone from 79 to 81 seats.
The proposal to cut the number rural seats didn't go over well.
So Campbell said he was intervening to over-rule the commissioners. The government would pass new legislation this fall, ordering the commission to protect the three rural seats.
The commission didn't do anything wrong. Its mandate under the law was to look at the province's changing population and come up with boundaries that would ensure each MLA would represent about the same number of people. The act
requires ridings to be within 25 per cent of the average population size, although there is an opportunity for larger deviations in exceptional circumstances.
With populations falling - or growing slowly - in some areas, the result would be fewer, larger ridings in those regions.
That meant the Kootenays representation would go from four to three; Cariboo-Thompson from five seats to four; and the north from eight to seven ridings.
Over all, the Lower Mainland and Okanagan would gain power; the rural areas would lose. But that's the nature of representative democracy.
The political kickback was strong though, and Campbell reacted. But exactly what he has in mind remains mysterious.
Remember, the commissioners only proposed adding five new seats to urban areas. So even if the instructions are to protect the three rural seats that faced elimination, the legislature would only need to go to 84 members.
Campbell says the commissioners will be ordered to include a total of eight additional seats, taking the legislature to 87 MLAs.
Campbell didn't say where the extra three seats would go, or how that would be decided.
But it looks like the intent is to add not just five seats to urban areas, but eight.
And that has NDP leader Carole James - who supported protecting the three rural seats - crying foul. She says Campbell is trying to create more safe Liberals seats in the Lower Mainland and in the process reducing overall rural
It's a bit of a mess. The Electoral Boundaries Commission worked for 18 months and spent $3 million working on new riding boundaries under the law. It had hearings set for this fall.
Campbell turned that upside down and it's not yet clear how it will be put back together. The legislation this fall will have to answer the questions about how much freedom the commission will have under his new plan.
One way or another, it's going to cost more money. Eight more MLAs means millions more in salary, support staff, constituency offices and the rest. (That's all a bit ironic given Campbell's 1996 campaign "Pledge with taxpayers"
that promised the number of MLAs would be reduced to less than 60.)
And it's going to make time tight. The new boundaries have to be in the hands of Elections BC within the next eight months. There could be a lot of work to do and little time for public consultation.
The biggest worry is the precedent Campbell is setting. The Electoral Boundaries Commission was established to prevent the party in power from setting boundaries that would improve its candidates' chances. In the U.S., congressional seats
have been so distorted that incumbents have a huge advantage.
Now Campbell's intervention is raising questions about a return to politically influenced electoral boundaries.
Footnote: The changes should be good news for proponents of the single-transferable-vote system of proportional representation. A referendum will be held on the system at the same time as the 2009 election. The increased number
of seats makes the system more representative, particularly in rural areas.