Thursday, August 16, 2007

New ridings painful for rural B.C., but fair

There’s going to be some pained shouts from the north and Interior, but B.C.’s Electoral Boundaries Commission has done a pretty good job of redrawing the map of ridings around the province.
The commission has set out two reworked sets of ridings, one for the current system and one for a new proportional representation electoral process.
The basic news is that the commission proposes creating five new ridings - four in the Lower Mainland and one in the Okanagan – to reflect the population growth there.
Instead of simply increasing the legislature by five seats, the commission recommended reducing the number of seats in rural B.C. by three.
The Caiboo-Thompson goes from five seats to four; the Kootenays from four to three; the north from eight to seven ridings.
The end result is that the legislature goes from 79 to 81 MLAs and urban areas get more political clout.
The three commissioners faced a tough task. Their principal mandate was to look at the province's changing population and come up with riding boundaries that would ensure that each MLA would represent about the same number of people.
Sounds easy. Figure out how many MLAs you want, divide that number into the total number of eligible voters and come up with ridings with have roughly that number of people, ones that make sense, where people share a set of interests.
But it's not that simple. Our system, no matter how it's tweaked, is messy. Right now, Lorne Mayencourt represents 75,000 people in Vancouver-Burrard; Gary Coons represents 28,000 people in Prince Rupert and in the North Coast riding. That hardly seems fair.
But Mayencourt's riding is nine square kilometres. In a day, he can cover every corner - walking. Coon's riding is 66,000 square kilometres. It can take three days to visit one community.
There's no real arguing against the commission's recommendations, based on the underlying assumption that ridings should all include roughly the same number of people. On that basis, the Lower Mainland should have 75 per cent of the seats.
And it all makes sense, when you're drawing lines on a map.
But for those regions seeing fewer MLAs, the result is discouraging. The candidates are a little less interested in your concerns. It's farther to drive to the constituency office for a meeting.
When a vote comes up in the legislature, there are fewer people knowledgeable about the local issues. (OK, that is a little idealistic. It often seems that MLAs spend more time promoting their party and leader than their constituents’ interests.)
And, broadly, there's a big political shift under way. In the 1986 election, there were 69 ridings. The Lower Mainland had 45 per cent of the seats, and back then the Fraser Valley barely counted as urban.
The legislature - and the Socred cabinet - was dominated by MLAs from rural and resource communities.
If the commission's recommendations are accepted, Lower Mainland MLAs will dominate the new legislature. Vancouver and its sprawl will have 57 per cent of the seats in the house.
For the first time in the province's history, a party will be able to form government without electing a single MLA from outside the Lower Mainland.
You can understand how that will worry people in the rest of B.C., especially because they feel they have been forgotten for much of the last six years by the Liberal government. Even now, with the economy doing well across the province, many rural communities fear not enough is being done to prepare for the crash when the pine-beetle-damaged wood runs out.
But there’s no avoiding the reality that our system is based on representation by population, and ridings need to be roughly comparable. Given that, the commission did a good job of redrawing the map.
It also took some useful steps to make ridings more appropriate, bringing like communities into the same riding to ensure a set of common interests and concerns. That will help voters, and MLAs.
Footnote: The commission will now listen to submissions before submitting a final report. Expect minor tweaking at most. Then the politicians have to make the final decision, and will face pressure to add a couple of seats in rural areas.
The report also set out proposed ridings for the single-transferable-vote system of proportional representation. That’s a different column.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Premiers' contribute mostly hot air to climate change

Climate change and energy were supposed to be the big issues when the premiers got together in Moncton.
And given all the enthusiastic talk about the importance of the global-warming issue to life on Earth, you might have expected them to do something.
But no. After two days, the best the premiers could do was agree to start keeping track of greenhouse gas emissions in a consistent way.
Weird, really. All this time they've been talking earnestly about reducing emissions by sector and setting goals and trading carbon credits.
And yet they don't even really know how much greenhouse gases are being produced by each province now, or how.
The premiers have been trying to stake out a bigger place in government. Since 2003, they've referred to themselves as the Council of the Federation, a name that's supposed to suggest - I'm not really sure what, actually. But the idea is the council speaks with some authority.
In real life, the council mostly mumbles. Like this time. Premier Gordon Campbell - along with his counterparts from Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba - were keen emission caps and a trading system. If a B.C. industry cut its emissions below the agreed-on level, it could sell the right to produce those emissions to some company in Nova Scotia that couldn't afford to install emission-reduction technology. The big benefit is that emissions come to have a cost. There is an incentive, beyond the vague notion of doing good or winning goodwill, for companies to cut emissions.
But Alberta, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan were opposed. They're afraid caps would hurt their energy industry. There was no agreement, which meant the no-caps side won. The premiers also talked about bringing in tough automobile emission standards to match the coming Californian regulations. Eventually, 12 of the 13 supported the idea.
But Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty nixed that proposal. The cost of meeting the California standards could add $2,000 to the price of a car. Fewer car sales would hurt Ontario's automotive industry. So the emissions didn't matter so much.
Individual provinces might still try to adopt the standards, but they'll have a tough time if automakers claim it's not worth producing special vehicles for a small market.
It wasn't a total bust. The premiers promised to produce an additional 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020 - figure about the equivalent of the production of 10 Revelstoke dams. They will include climate change in school curricula.
And the move to measure and report emissions is useful; the first step toward some sort of trading system.
"I'm not suggesting this is Earth shattering," said B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell. Right. "We've made some progress, though." Not much, really.
It wouldn't really be a premier's meeting without some grumbling about the federal government. Saskatchewan and Newfoundland are still angry because they say Stephen Harper broke his promise to exclude oil and gas revenues from the equalization formula. (Short verdict - they're right, Harper broke the promise, but it was a bad promise and bad policy.)
Some of the premiers were also fretting about the Conservative government might do.
Harper has said the government should be playing a smaller role in creating and supporting national social programs. The federal government should not be insisting on health-care standards or funding child-care programs, the argument goes. Those are areas of provincial jurisdiction, and the federal government should butt out.
The approach reflects Harper's view that the federal government should be smaller.
And it will score political points in Quebec. Premier Jean Charest has said he wants to start talks about a reduced role for the federal government. But other premiers are edgy, because they believe federal programs are needed to ensure equal standards and improving programs and they fear Ottawa government will cut back funding.
Still, based on the premiers' inability to make progress on climate change - supposedly a national priority - the prime minister doesn't have much to worry about from the council of the federation, grand name or not.