The latest revision of Quebec's electoral map began in 2008 and should have taken less than a year, yet the sad saga continues. Quebec law is clear: this is the task of an independent agency, the Commission de la Representation Electorale (CRE). However, every effort by the CRE to carry out its mandate to make district boundaries reflect population trends has been stymied by the delaying tactics of both the governing Liberals and the opposition Patti Quebecois.
The Liberals first tried unsuccessfully three times to change the criteria so as to favour outlying regions at the expense of residents of expanding cities. Having managed to keep the CRE from meeting for two years, they then allied themselves with the Pequistes to pass legislation temporarily suspending the CRE's powers. But the two could not agree on how to amend the law to favour the regions.
When the CRE was finally extricated from its legal straitjacket, it tabled its revised report before the National Assembly when the new session opened in the fall of this year. Finally, it seemed, we would have a new map for the next election. But no. Just before Inroads went to press, the parties managed to act together once more and passed new emergency legislation to save three sparsely populated rural constituencies.
The CRE's attempt to abolish these ridings appears to have been unprecedented, so perhaps we should not be surprised at the outcome. In the last 45 years, as Quebec became increasingly urbanized and suburbs grew rapidly, 35 new ridings were created and five were eliminated on Montreal Island, but no rural riding was touched. Instead, since 1965 the total number of constituencies has grown from 95 to 125 (much larger Ontario has 107 constituencies).
With this revision, the legal requirement that the number of voters in any riding be no more than 25 per cent above or below the provincial average and the number of ridings be limited to 125 left the CRE no leeway. It thus planned to make room for three new ridings in overpopulated Montreal suburbs by eliminating three underpopulated rural ridings. The battle to preserve the rural ridings was launched by a tiny but influential regional lobby. In 2006, this lobby had succeeded in torpedoing an electoral reform plan in spite of strong popular support before a parliamentary committee. This time again, the demands of this pressure group swayed both the Liberal government and the PQ opposition.
This debate pits two visions against each other. For the defenders of the status quo, overrepresentation of outlying areas is rooted in a conception of parliamentarians' role that gives first priority to their function as mediators rather than legislators. They see the essential role of a member of the National Assembly as being to meet with voters and advance local interests in the legislature. As this type of activity is much more demanding in outlying rural regions, it justifies inequalities of representation compared to urban regions, and vindicates leaving the decision to politicians.
On the other hand, for those who conceive of the electoral map as an expression of the right to vote, everyone's vote should have equal weight, regardless of where they live. Legislators represent people, not trees or land, said the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. Hence, devaluing the vote of residents of densely populated areas constitutes a denial of the...