Opinion: It would take at least until the fall of 2023 to finalize adding six seats to the 87 already in the BC legislature
VICTORIA — There were sighs of relief from some MLAs in both major parties this week when the electoral boundaries commission decided not to recommend the elimination of any existing seats in the legislature.
The result was a surprise.
Early speculation suggested that the independent commission could reduce the seat count in the Northern, Peace River, Cariboo and Kootenay regions to reflect population disparities.
The commission seriously considered doing just that.
But in the end, the three members – High Court Justice Nitya Iyer, local government adviser Linda Tynan and electoral director Anton Boegman – decided that those parts of the province were quite difficult to represent as they were.
This is the committee’s justification for maintaining the status quo of six seats in the North.
“While we are examining options to adjust electoral boundaries in this area, including consolidating the current six constituencies into five, we are convinced that such changes would deprive residents of these constituencies of effective representation,” they wrote.
“The sheer geographic size of many of these rides and their challenging terrain and weather, coupled with limited transportation options and poor internet connectivity, convinces us that there is a real need for them to retain their current boundaries.”
The goal of ensuring “effective representation” allowed the commission to deviate from the other principle that guides its work, namely providing fair representation of the population.
“Effective representation recognizes that elected representatives not only sit in the legislature and vote, but also play a vital role in helping their constituents deal with government bodies,” the commissioners wrote in their report, released Monday.
“The courts have called this the ombudsman role. Everyone should have equivalent access to their elected representative, regardless of geographic size, population density, or travel infrastructure.”
Communication links are weak or non-existent in some parts of BC, as the commissioners themselves discovered during their tour of the province when their car broke down in an area with no cell phone coverage.
The other factor that saved those seats from the interior was a mandate from the NDP government.
It allowed commissioners to add six seats to supplement representation in the fastest growing regions.
The six new seats ensured that all but five seats in the resulting 93-seat house fall within preferred guidelines for fair representation: plus or minus 25 percent of the average population counts per trip.
The five seats held under the minus 25 percent guideline are all in the North, two represented by New Democrats and three by BC Liberals.
The six proposed new seats are in Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, Langley, the Okanagan and the provincial capital region.
Five of the six are in areas where New Democrats already hold a majority of seats.
But that is to be expected, given the dismal performance of the Liberal Party in those regions in the 2020 elections.
When the Liberals won elections, they held their own in the fastest growing parts of the province.
To get back into power, they need to take back those regions, including the new seats and many of the old ones.
In addition to the proposed changes, the commission modified the boundaries of most other districts to even out population disparities.
But despite all the equalization effort, a significant imbalance remains.
“The weight of a vote in the province’s least populated equation will no longer be four times greater than the weight of a vote in the province’s most densely populated equation,” the commission advised. “The difference will be three to one.
“In our view, this is the necessary consequence of balancing the principles of representation by population with effective representation.”
The commission did not consider, and it is not part of its mandate, where to put the actual physical seats for those six additional MLAs in an already packed BC legislature.
NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth has long joked that the solution is to replace desks with bleachers, as in a sports stadium, or benches, as in the UK House of Commons. The day may be near if these recommendations are approved.
The commission’s next step is a round of public hearings on the preliminary report’s recommendations.
Some communities will try to persuade the commission that they are in the wrong place.
Political parties will argue through surrogates for selfish changes.
“We must not consider the impact of our proposals on particular parties or representatives,” warns the commission.
If the practice above is any guide, partial releases will be ignored.
The commission will also not be able to attend to most of the requests for change from the affected communities.
As set out in some detail in the preliminary report, this first set of limits represents a delicate balancing act between guidelines and competing circumstances.
The final report, which is likely to retain most of the first’s painstaking trade-offs, is due April 3.
Then, it will be up to the government to translate the recommendations into legislation.
Once approved by the legislature, the new electoral map must be implemented by Elections BC, a process that could take half a year or more.
Speculation has the New Democrats under a new leader seeking a snap election in 2023, rather than the legislated date of Oct. 19, 2024. A spring election would have to be held on the existing 87-seat electoral map.
If the government wants to run in the 93-seat limits, it would mean postponing the election until the fall at the earliest.