I’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.