WE'RE RUNNING AN UNDEMOCRATIC ELECTION
FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT
Eight million people in Canada’s big cities are second-class voters. Here, one of them demands a new deal that will make his vote count almost as much as a farmer’s — instead of half as much
ON THE EVE of what may well be the most crucial and bitterly contested election in Canada’s history only one prediction is safe; a majority of the people will not elect a majority of the MPs in Canada’s next parliament.
This does not refer to the familiar phenomenon of a political party being returned to power on an over-all minority of the votes cast. Indeed, the situation is only indirectly connected with party politics. The fact is that even if one party elected all the MPs in the 1963 election, a minority of Canadians would still be represented by a majority of the members of parliament.
This situation arises from the fact that Canada inherited from Britain, along with many admirable traditions and practices, the rotten borough system. We still cling to it although the British got rid of it years ago. Before they did, in the late 1700s, British county ridings had 130,000 voters who elected ninety-two MPs. The boroughs, under the political control of aristocrats and rich men who in effect owned them, had only 84,000 voters but elected 421 MPs.
Canada's home-grown version of the rotten-borough system has no name, and nobody owns any ridings; yet the way it works in 1963 is an equally barefaced denial of democracy. About eight million of us live in big city areas with populations of 100,000 or more. We elect ninety-nine MPs.
About seven million people live on farms, or in towns with an average population of less than twelve thousand. They elect roughly a hundred and fifty MPs. The remaining three million Canadians live in middle-sized cities and as nearly as I can figure, they elect sixteen MPs, although in some such ridings there is reasonable doubt whether rural or urban interests arc predominant.
In other words, farmers and small-towners have such an overwhelming majority of MPs at Ottawa that they can defeat, if and when they care to, any measure that might be to the particular advantage of those of us who live in big cities.
1 submit that as long as this situation is allowed to continue, Canada is a democracy in name only. It’s high time we refused to tolerate so uneven a balance, and did something practical to set things right. Later in this article I shall propose a way to do just that. Meanwhile I’m going to go into the present state of affairs in some detail, starting with the cozy political setup that makes it possible.
Each federal electoral district, or riding, has one MP. But the boundaries of the ridings, and consequently the number and kind of people who live in them, arc not established on principles of impersonal justice by parliament acting as a whole. On the contrary, this very important job is left to parliamentary
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continued from pope 24
“Last election the winners lost — and the losers won”
subcommittees, which consist of Ml’s who have both a personal and a party interest in making no change that could endanger their own seats. As a rule that means doing their best to avoid any changes at all. And that in turn means doing nothing to correct a good many scandalous inequalities.
Since the outcome of a vote in a riding affects everybody in it, including those who have no vote or don't bother to vote, it’s more realistic to compare ridings on a basis of their population than on the number of their voters. For one thing the percentage of voteless persons differs widely from riding to riding, from a high of about sixty percent to a low of about fifteen. For another the percentage of possible voters who don’t vote differs not only from titling to riding, but from election to election — depending on all sorts of unpredictable factors such as the weather, the votegetting power of the candidates, or even simply the mood individual voters happen to be in. For example, only about sixty percent of the voters of Manitoba went to the polls in the general election of 1953, but eighty percent voted in 1958. Furthermore, winning candidates are elected by a rather small fraction of those who vote, ranging from less than a fifth to
about a third at the most. Whereas the population generally doesn’t differ a great deal from election to election, and isn’t subject to so many variable influences.
On a population basis, one vote in the rural New Brunswick riding of Kent is worth almost four votes in the riding of the city of Saint John. In Ontario one vote in rural Bruce is worth nine votes in urban YorkScarborough. In Quebec, which has the most flagrant example of ruralurban unfairness in Canada, one vote in Iles-de-la-Madcleine, the smallest rural riding, counts for nearly nineteen in Mercier, the biggest urban riding. And scattered across the country there are other similar cases of discrimination, where the votes of farmers and small-towners outweigh the votes of city people by two or more to one.
Rural-urban unfairness isn’t the only kind that flourishes under the subcommittees. There is also unfairness between ridings within the metropolitan areas themselves. One vote in the smallest Quebec City riding counts for two in the biggest. In the Vancouver area, one vote in New Westminster counts for three in Vancouver Centre. One vote in Metro Toronto’s smallest riding equals five in its biggest. In metropolitan Montreal one vote in little Stc. Anne counts as much as seven votes in huge Mercier.
This widespread cheating of majorities probably helps to explain the peculiar result of the general election of June 1962. The final totals were: Liberals 2.871,868; PC’s 2,867,553. Close as the vote was, nevertheless the
largest single group of voters wanted the Liberals to run Canada. The second-largest group wanted the Progressive Conservatives to run it. But as things turned out the winners lost and the losers won.
So far I've dealt with the fundamental injustice, as a matter of straight democratic principle, of giving the city-dwelling majority a much smaller representation in parliament than is given to the small-town minority. NowI'm going to deal with another sort of injustice done to city people under our system. Not only do they get far fewer MPs than they should in proportion to their numbers. They pay a vastly greater share, both proportionately and in the actual amount, of the tax money it takes to keep Canada going. And though this can't be said to be taxation without representation, it most certainly is taxation without fair representation, and city people have every right to resent it and rebel against it.
Consider the figures. In 1959, in the country as a whole, 4,242,490 Canadians paid a total of just over $1.5 billions in personal income tax. About a billion of this came from the 2,215,382 taxpayers who lived in metropolitan areas. Thus while only a little over half of all taxpayers were bigcity people, they paid almost twothirds of the total amount of the tax. That year there were about 530,000 farmers in Canada; but only 66,011, roughly one out of eight, paid any income tax whatever, and what they did pay came to a bit less than $21 millions. The figures change from year to year of course, but the rela-
tive rural-urban position doesn’t. Bigcity people always pay a huge share of the federal bills, including what’s spent on various subsidies for farmers, yet they always get much less than the number of parliamentary seats they're entitled to on a population basis.
Federal aid favors the West
Here I want to say, as a big-city man who has w'rittcn a good many radio programs concerned with farming, and has therefore had to try to learn perhaps rather more than most city people about what farmers are up against, that I don't at all object to federal help for them. I even think it's possible that some farmers don't get enough. But 1 do object to the way the help is dished out, and I object chiefly on two grounds.
One is that western farmers get relatively much more federal money than farmers in the rest of Canada, which leads me to wonder whether our governments think the western farm vote is so important that an indirect effort should be made to buy it. The figures that follow, quoted from the Public Accounts, show agricultural expenditures by the federal government in or applicable to 1959, the year I've been using as an example: Acreage payments to western grain
producers ......... $41,300,000
Freight assistance on western feed grains . . 19,999,094
Prairie Farm Assistance Act, on 1959 crop . . 20,429,463
Less a rebate from the one percent levy the farmers themselves paid to-
ward the cost of the Assistance Act, that amounts to about $75.5 millions for the roughly 230,000 farmers in the three western provinces. There were about 300,000 farmers in the rest of Canada that year, yet they only got $60 millions in price supports for various commodities — notably butter, the price support of which made it worthwhile to produce a mountainous surplus.
My second ground for objecting to the way federal money is spent on farmers is that an appreciable part of the whole outlay (the precise figure is almost impossible to verify) comes from the pockets of big-city taxpayers and goes to assist the eight farmers out of ten who make so little money they aren’t subject to income tax at all. Many of their farms arc so inefficient that instead of adding to the national production they reduce it, and some are as run-down as the squalid Tobacco Road rural slums of the American South.
It’s hard to find any justification for keeping such places going. Not long ago I asked several successful and highly educated farmers if they thought it was right to do so. The answer one of these super-farmers gave, and the others agreed with him, boiled down to this. He admitted, and indeed insisted, that there was absolutely no economic justification for keeping them going. But money isn’t everything, he said, and added that farming is a way of life which a man can love, and that poor and inefficient farmers love it every bit as much as prosperous farmers do. He then went on to say that because the men on the submarginal farms did love their way of life, they should be helped to keep it — making it clear that in his opinion such help was a kind of moral obligation.
I could have said that this wasn’t a particularly convincing argument in favor of spending large sums of public money, most of it contributed by city people who got nothing in return, on farmers who had demonstrated that they couldn’t make their beloved way of life pay. But 1 said nothing, because I knew perfectly well that it would have been useless.
However emotional the attitude of farmers may be toward this aspect of federal assistance, it will continue to block any sensible reforms as long as we put up with the practice of letting the boundaries of federal ridings, and the rural-urban balance of their populations, be determined by subcommittees of MPs with a strong interest in leaving everything as it is. Big-city people will go right on helping to support failures unless and until there's a drastic change in the system of parliamentary representation. And they will also go right on suffering the infinitely more serious disadvantage that comes from the possibility, always present as things arc, that the majority of MPs representing farm and small-town interests will vote down measures intended to further metropolitan interests.
That brings me to my simple proposal for correcting this sorry situation. Since it would be too unrealistic to hope that any existing rural riding wou’d be amalgamated or wiped out to adjust the rural-urban balance bymaking the House of Commons
smaller. I suggest making the House bigger, by limiting the population allowable in any federal riding to a maximum of 75.000.
The effect would be to raise the number of seats from the present 265 to 356. by adding ninety-one MPs from what would be new ridings, inhabited by the surplus population of the old 75,000-plus ridings. In some cases, where a riding now has only a few hundreds or thousands more people than my proposed maximum of 75,000, the new riding would be arbitrarily given, say, 35,000, and the population of the old reduced to 40,000 or thereabouts, to prevent absurdly wide differences. But that wouldn’t alter the total number of new ridings, which would largely correct the unjust under-representation of bigcity people.
The ninety-one added ridings would be allocated in this way. Two of the old ridings — Montreal’s Mercier and Metro Toronto's York-Scarborough — have such big populations that under my proposal they would each return three more MPs than they do now. Six of the old ridings — Montreal’s Jacques - Cartier - Lasalle and Laval, Metro Toronto’s York Centre and York West, Halifax and Edmonton West — would each return two more, and the remaining seventy-three old ridings having over 75,000 population would return one more MP each. Of these, more than forty of the new MPs would come from metropolitan areas with populations of 100,000 or more, and about twenty from smaller but still rather big cities, such as St. Catharines in Ontario and Regina in Saskatchewan. Eleven only would come from rural or predominantly rural ridings, for example Fraser Valley in British Columbia and BonavistaTwillingate in Newfoundland, which now have a population of 75,000-plus.
Not only would acceptance of my proposal help very greatly to correct the injustice that now gives the farmer and small-town minority the whip hand. Not only would it leave all the present MPs in firm possession of their seats. It would make room for almost a hundred more MPs. And if that isn't a prospect to make political mouths water, I never heard of one. ★