Thursday, March 16, 2006

How big is your district?

With the Election Boundaries Commission having started up, I've been thinking for awhile doing something on it. I wrote a couple of stories back when I was with The Express on it, and it's a story I've been watching closely.

Then Liam posted something on it, mostly about how disappointed they won't be getting rid of more seats in the House of Assembly. Then Ed got involved and then things went normally the way a conversation goes with the two of them go at it.

So let's ignore the question of whether or not 48 is too many seats for Newfoundland. Let's instead look at where those seats are going to end up. Because that's where the racket is going to be.

Now, a caveat off the top here. I'm doing this from memory. I'm coming down with a flu this evening and I'm not in the mood to dig through government documents to verify every fact. So if I get something wrong, I apologize, but kindly don't beat it to death with a hammer.

My understanding is this: Each provincial district has to be within 10 per cent of each other when it comes to population. There are exceptions to this rule, and they're in Labrador. Because of the size of some of these districts, they allow up to 25 per cent difference in population. Besides, if they stuck to the hard and fast rules, Labrador would lose at least one, maybe two seats in the House through redistribution. Good luck being the party that wants to run that one through and ever win another seat in Labrador.

Where things get interesting is that rural Newfoundland has been decimated since the last time a boundary commission was formed. Some districts have lost a lot of their population. On the other hand, the St. John's metro area has, if not increased in population, certainly significantly increased in its proportion of the total population of Newfoundland. In 1993, when I think the last commission happened, St. John's made up 15 to 20 per cent of the province's population (a guess, I admit), the St. John's Metro area (the city, Mount Pearl, Paradise, CBS, Torbay, St. Phillips, etc) makes up, what 40 per cent of the population now?

So here's the question to ask: Do you give St. John's the proper number of seats, even if then gives it more political power (and doesn't it deserve that power, based on its size?). Or do you introduce the 25 per cent rule from Labrador to the island. Because aside from political power being concentrated in the city, most urban MHAs do dick all. However, the rural MHAs are normally going flat out trying to answer the concerns of their constituents.

I think the 25 per cent rule is coming to the island because giving too much power to St. John's is also political suicide. But it'll be interesting to see what happens.

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vickyth said...

So in this case, it's not what you do with it, but the size that counts?

Ed Hollett said...

A great summary of one of the implications from the boundaries commission.

The population from the last census gets divided by 47 and then the boundaries are set out. Each district can vary 10% more or less than the figure you get from that first divisions. There is an ability to vary by 25% plus or minus but there have to be certain conditions for that to occur.

There has been a fairly obvious shift in population onto the Avalon peninsula, as you note. My calculation puts it at about 33% for the St. John's census area and the whole of the Avalon probably has about half the population.

So yes, the question then comes: do we wind up with a bunch of new seats on the Avalon and a reduction on the rest of the Island?

Almost certainly yes. There really isn't much else the commission can do. There are four seats guaranteed for Labrador. Put that with the 16 for the northeast Avalon and you have 20 seats to cover everywhere else.

We won't see the report for the better part of a year and I doubt very much we could get an overall of the system done in the period between when the commission submits its report and the date of the next election. (Oct 2007)

This might wind up being one of the most serious political fights to be waged in the months ahead. The implications are serious for the existing members of the House, some of whom may well see their seats vanish or shifted around quite significantly

On top of that we might see a discussion of how many seats there should be at all, which was Liam's point. I don't think that will turn up simply because reducing the number of seats makes the political problem of apportionment that much greater than the great problem it will already be.

towniebastard said...

I'm wondering if the 25% rule gets extended the rest of the island, with the exception of Avalon Peninsula. I recall speaking to a cabinet minister about this, and I think it was Loyola. The concern was to make certain the St. John's metro area did not end up with too much power, so I could really see the 25% variance applying to all areas except the Avalon.

Also, the plan was to have the changes ready before the next election. Whether you believe it or not, that's what I was told about a year ago.

There's also the matter, and I don't know if they'll take this into account, that rural MHAs clearly work much harder and have more difficulties than urban MHAs. Their work load is greater, they have to travel farther to get to their district and they have to travel more once they get there. So is it fair to make their districts even larger?

Avalon is going to get more districts, but not as many as it should, I think.

Ed Hollett said...

They should be able to have the changes ready for Fall '07, which is the next election.

They could apply the 25% rule across the province, but I am wondering how much stomach there would be or how much debate might follow if you wound up applying it to more than a couple of districts. After all, in order to keep seats pretty much as they are, you'd have to vary both the townie seats and the outta town ones.

Seat distribution is always a political dog's breakfast and there is never any stomach for fewer. I can see the argument being made to keep the outta town seats as they are and just add three or four more, putting us back up to 52.

At that point, Liam would have a coronary, most likely.

Where it would wind up though is anybody's guess. The last time it was an excruciatingly painful process and that was just to get things down by four seats with a bigger population overall in the province.

All I know is this is going to be a really controversial issue like we have never seen controversy before.