What to do with the House of Commons?

parliament2.jpgI’ve already addressed several of the problems of the Canadian House of Commons in my article “The Perversity of the Canadian House of Commons,” but I wanted to discuss here a problem which proves that we must revisit the constitution.

In all of my research, I can find very little written on this topic as it doesn’t seem like a problem to most theorists or to most pundits.  But allow me to explain why this problem is serious and why it absolutely must be addressed either sooner or later.  Keep in mind that this isn’t merely my opinion that it must be addressed, but rather an empirical fact – it is a necessary fact of the way our Parliament works that either we’re going to have to come up with a solution or somebody else is going to have to come up with a solution.

The problem stems from the way we count MPs and the actual physical size of the House of Commons.  What the hell does that mean?  Well let me explain:

First off – the actual chamber of the House of Commons is, obviously, of finite size.  Here’s what it consists of:

#1)  The house of Commons currently holds the maximum number of columns of seats it can possibly hold.  It currently has 10 columns of chairs/desks (5 on the opposition side and 5 on the government side). 

#2) The Government and Opposition benches, because of Parliamentary tradition, must be separated by a length just slightly longer than that of 2 sword-lengths (bonus points for anybody who can think back in history for the reason for this).

#3) The House of Commons currently has 32 rows of chairs/desks, of which, the first three are only partial due to the Speaker’s chair.

#4) At most, the House of Commons could add one additional row of seating for a maximum seating plan of about 320 give or take (there are currently 308 MPs)


So that’s it, we’re nearing the maximum physical capacity of how many people we can actually physically cram down into that chamber.

Why is this a problem?

Well it goes back to what I wrote in my article “The Perversity of the Canadian House of Commons” (see above).  The way we apportion MPs means that almost no province can actually lose seats in the House, and thus in order to give more seats to provinces that are growing, the only way to do so is to keep adding more MPs.  (This, keep in mind, is diametrically opposed to the American example who keep their House of Representatives fixed at 435).

To illustrate my point: 

-In 1867, the first Parliament was established which had 180 seats in total. 

-In 2007, the 39th Parliament has 308 seats in total.

Now, granted, the grandfather clauses dictating the minimum number of seats each province can receive have changed since 1967, but that equals an average increase of about 9 MPs every 10 years in the House of Commons.

Remember my rough estimate of the maximum number of people we can physically cram into the House?  Well, given the historical trends, in about 20 years we can expect to come across some difficulties on that front.  In short, virtually every industrialized and mature democracy on Earth (except for us) realizes that there will come a time when one must cap the number of MPs one allows in the House.

So what is to be done?

This whole problem of the ever-increasing size of the House of Commons stems from the absolutely stupid notion of Grandfather Clauses which dictate that certain provinces can never receive lower than a certain number of seats regardless of how small they get while others (namely Ontario, BC and Alberta) will forever go under-represented (click here for more details).

The only way to change the Grandfather Clauses is to amend the constitution.  Now, I recognize that the Grandfather Clauses are there to balance out the federation so that Ontario and Quebec don’t have undue influence (although obviously this hasn’t worked).  Therefore, something else will clearly have to be initiated to insure that certain provinces aren’t completely ignored – this could range from a system of so-called “Qualified Majority Voting” like they have in the European Union or to a reformed Canadian Senate with equality of all provinces. 

Either way, regardless of what path we chose, the point should be clear that we can’t keep puting our head in the sand, like the Liberal Party is want to do, whenever the issue of Constitutional amendment comes up.  Something must be done.  We are an incomplete country with an incomplete and unsustainable constitution and either we revisit it on our own timetable, or we let external necessity determine for us when we revisit it.  But either way, a time will come when, for the reason here (which, admittedly, is trivial compared to Quebec’s concerns) and for any number of other reasons, we must take a stab at another round of massive constitutional amendments à la Meech Lake and Charlottetown.

6 Responses to “What to do with the House of Commons?”

  1. 1 Dan 14 February, 2007 at 11:31 am

    The risk with the American system is that the 435 continually represent more and more people. One congressman now represents 690 000 people (if you figure an even division of 300 million by 435). In Canada one MP represents an average of under 100 000. maintaining representation in the 100 000/seat range is – at least on the surface – surely more democratic. Otherwise yeah, I agree that seat guarantees for provinces are dumb. Without them PEI would have only one seat.

    PS: I blogrolled you.

  2. 2 paulitics 14 February, 2007 at 12:20 pm


    You’re right that the average US Representative has a WAY larger constituency than the avereage Canadian MP. But the choices are either a constatly growing House in terms of MPs or a constantly growing constituency.

    That said, it don’t think it’s a natural corollary of my proposal that our House would ever even come close to having as populous constituencies as the American House of Representatives. In order for Canadian MPs to have the same number of constituents as an American Representative, the number of MPs in the House would have to be cut significantly and that’s never going to happen under either the current system or under any reformed proposal (in fact, CES Franks, a noted Parliamentary conservative and father of the study of the Canadian Parliament argued convincingly that we should increase the number of MPs to, say 375 or 400 – which is almost as many as the Americans have with 10 times the population – I merely added the caveat that we should then also cap the House at that number by removing grandfather clauses).

  3. 3 Morgan 19 February, 2007 at 5:57 am

    Excellent post. I can’t resist arguing one point.

    There is no practical reason at this stage for the two swords length distance between the sides of the house.

    Although, Parliamentary tradition you will find that many parliaments the world over-including Nunavut’s-do not follow this tradition.

    Like the missing mace in the state of Victoria… when democracy requires tradition to go by the wayside it is a lot easier to shorten the distance between the sides of the house than to enlarge the chamber.

  4. 4 paulitics 19 February, 2007 at 9:19 am

    Morgan – indeed you’re good to point out that Parliamentary tradition can (and has in the past) been disregarded in the name of expediency. I actually wasn’t aware of Victoria’s missing mace, so that was an interesting tidbit.

    That said, if we’re going to alter Parliamentary tradition, while your suggestion would increase the seating capactiy, it would be an even greater increase in the capacity of the House if we did away with the Canadian tradition of giving each MP a desk and chair instead of just benches as in the UK tradition. I estimate that we could get perhaps as much as 375-390 MPs into the House if we eliminated the desks.

    However, without removing grandfather clauses, neither of these suggestions are solutions since eventually, the size of the House will outgrow both. At best they’re stop-gap measures.

  5. 5 dannydeh3 13 May, 2013 at 10:15 am

    The electoral quotient should decrease to what it was in 1867 (approximately 19,239), which would make Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario appropriately represented, reduce the cost of campaigning (reducing the influence of political parties, leaders and campaign contributors), increase the interaction with constituents and candidates (increasing voter turnout), reduce the need for office staff and make the national popular vote more accurately reflected in the composition in the House of Commons. MPs should be permitted (and required in many instances) to participate in House of Commons and committee proceedings via videoconferencing, which would result in significant housing, transportation and meal expenses and permit greater interaction with constituents.

  1. 1 top 10 binary options Trackback on 3 May, 2015 at 9:04 pm

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