The House of Commons is set to expand by 30 seats under legislation proposed by the government Thursday that would add MPs for Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.
The proposed breakdown is as follows: three seats for Quebec, 15 for Ontario, and six each for Alberta and British Columbia.
The fair representation act was announced by Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal, who said the bill contains a "principled and reasonable update" to the formula used to divide up seats among the provinces and territories.
"As it stands, these provinces have become significantly and increasingly under represented due to population growth. This representation gap should of course be addressed," Uppal said at a news conference in Brampton, Ont.
Quebec is getting three new seats, not because its population is growing quickly like those of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, but because of a promise the Conservatives made to ensure that Quebec isn't under-represented in the Commons relative to its population.
Quebec has 75 of 308 seats right now, or 24.4 per cent. July Statistics Canada numbers show Quebec had a population of 7,979,663, or 23.1 per cent of the country's population.
Under the new distribution, the province would have 23.1 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.
The bill is also designed so that no seats are dropped for any other province.
The changes wouldn't be made until after 2015, Uppal said. An independent, non-partisan electoral boundary commission will be tasked with redistributing seats and will begin its work next year, Uppal said, and the process will involve public consultations.
Expanding Commons comes at a cost
He acknowledged that expanding the number of seats in Parliament will come at a cost — $11.5 million for each election and $14.8 million in operations costs for the House of Commons. He didn't elaborate on what expenses he was including in that figure.
The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation, however, puts the direct cost for 30 more MPs much higher than Uppal's estimation. It says the cost would be $18.2 million per year.
The salary for MPs is $157,731. That's $4.7 million for 30 of them, and the organization also added up the costs for office expenses, accommodation, per diem expenses, and travel, furniture, and phones provided by the House of Commons to arrive at its figure.
The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation also notes that the pensions for MPs will mean added costs, depending on how long they serve.
In an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics, Uppal admitted the cost was calculated without including seven seats that would have been added to the House of Commons even without the new legislation.
"The fact is that if we did nothing at all today, if we didn’t change the formula at all, didn’t bring any legislation in, there would still be, I believe, seven seats brought into the House of Commons. So that’s the difference," in the two calculations, he said
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The Liberals' interim leader Bob Rae, said he wants to hear from the provinces and that the committee that studies the bill should also address a larger question about whether the number of seats in the House of Commons should be capped at some point.
"Eventually we're going to get squeezed out of this building and we're going to get out into the street. So at some point we're going to have to bite the bullet and recognize that we're going to have to find a way to balance these critical principles," he said. Recognizing Quebec's position in the federation and recognizing the principle of representation by population are among those principles, he said.
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Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said previous versions failed to strike the right balance of seats.
"This is an important nation-buildng exercise but Stephen Harper pit region against region, refusing to acknowledge that the balance must exist between representation by population and recognition of Quebec's important role within Canada," she said.
NDP MP David Christopherson said his party acknowledges concerns about the cost of adding 30 new MPs but that the costs need to be weighed against the concerns of Canadians who are not getting the representation they deserve.
Stéphane Dion, the Liberals' critic on democratic reform, criticized the Conservatives for the way in which news of the proposed seat changes have trickled out over the past few months, and called for the provinces to be involved in the redistribution.
British Columbia's NDP leader, Adrian Dix, said the seat plan is unfair to his province and gives less seats than previous versions of the bill that never made it through Parliament.
British Columbia's Liberal government, however, said six new seats is an achievement for the province.
"At the end of the day I think they've arrived at a solution that is balanced," MLA John Les said. "Is it immaculate perfection? Probably not, but a pretty good result for British Columbia."
The new seats would bring British Columbia's total to 42. The proposed bill would bring the total number of MPs in the House of Commons from 308 to 338.