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RED DEER, Alta. /Troy Media/ – Albertans have been down the road to electoral boundary reform before – and discovered it led to a swamp.
Will the work of the newest Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission, and chair Myra Bielby (an Alberta Court of Appeal justice), be any different or will we still be stuck in the political muck with our hip-waders on?
The commission has already received more than 300 written submissions and has just begun listening to Albertans at public hearings. The intent is to ensure Alberta’s ridings – we have 87 after four were added as the result of a previous commission’s work in 2010 – represent voters as fairly and efficiently as possible.
That’s the theory. But when it comes to politics, theory, fairness and practice are often distant cousins, if related at all.
The proof will be in the final report’s recommendations to the government, due on Oct. 31. We’ll get a look at the work of the five commissioners on May 31 when the interim report is released. Besides Bielby, two commissioners were appointed by the NDP government and two by the Wildrose Opposition. None are MLAs.
There are plenty of considerations in a process like this. Fairness, service and connectivity should be chief among them.
Based on the number of Albertans eligible to vote, every riding should contain about 30,000 voters and, overall, 49,000 people – in a perfect world. But we know how simplistic and unrealistic that is in province with far-flung communities big and small. Unco-operative geography is always at play: winding rivers, huge swaths of prairie land, vast forests and mountains. Factor in shared infrastructure and other links between communities, social considerations and simple connectivity and the task becomes more difficult.
Seven years ago, the previous incarnation of the commission came back to Albertans with electoral boundary tinkering that got us no closer to fairness or improved representation.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. That commission set out on the task based on a faulty premise, pursued it with suspect methodology, and was driven by politics rather than pragmatism.
That five-member commission – three Conservative and two Liberal appointees – offered a preliminary report in February 2010 and tabled a final report in July. It was coated with political muck: the ruling Conservatives feasted on rural voters, election after election, and 29 rural ridings in Alberta had below-average populations. The commission recommended that four ridings be added to the existing 83: two in Calgary, for a total of 25; one in Edmonton, for a total of 19; and doubling Fort McMurray’s representation in the legislature to two. All that did was reflect the extraordinary population growth in those centres (and Alberta has grown by a further 20 per cent since the last commission was established in 2009); it did not fundamentally alter the rural-urban imbalance.
The fact Albertans elected a New Democratic Party government in 2015 despite this rural-urban imbalance is a testimony to how horribly the Conservatives failed us in their final years of governance, not to fairness in the system. The rural ridings now mostly belong to the Wildrose Party.
When the previous commission’s public hearing roadshow traversed the province, it was repeatedly told that urban voters were short-changed in terms of representation. The worst discrepancy at the time: one MLA represented 23,649 people in Dunvegan-Central Peace and another represented 55,571 people in Calgary-West.
The Electoral Boundaries Commission Act says population of a proposed electoral division must not be more than 25 per cent above nor more than 25 per cent below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions.
Yet the 2010 report did not address the modest size of many rural ridings, nor the difficulty that MLAs must have in representing ridings of 50,000 people or more.
It’s long been argued that rural Albertans wouldn’t get adequate representation if their MLAs were forced to represent a similar number of constituents. But that notion fails to account for modern communication networks and displays an inability to imagine new ways of doing public business.
Albertans want fairness in politics and accessibility in services. But MLAs don’t represent service, they simply represent a voice, and no single voice should be stronger than that of the MLA in the next riding.
Certainly, rural Albertans should have access to services and to their MLAs. But increasing the budget of rural MLAs to ensure they have staff and resources to reach across the greater distances in ridings makes far more sense than skewing the voter-to-MLA ratio.
It’s time to completely redraw the political map in Alberta, skirting the political swamp.
John Stewart is Editorial Vice President with Troy Media Digital Solutions Ltd. and Editor-in-Chief of Troy Media. John is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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