There is "overwhelming opposition" in Saskatchewan to proposed new federal electoral boundaries, the Harper government maintains, even though the Conservative Party has admitted it instigated a set of robocalls that may have been trying to drum up opposition to the boundary proposals.

There seems to be no solid evidence to prove that a majority of Saskatchewan residents are upset with the new boundary proposals put forward by a Saskatchewan commission tasked to alter electoral ridings to more fairly reflect their populations.

This may be why the Conservative Party commissioned a series of robocalls that informed call recipients that the proposed new boundaries are contrary to Saskatchewan values. The calls prompted people to press 1 on their keypads if they agreed.

Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Conservative Party admitted the calls came from his party, citing an "internal miscommunication" to explain why the party had not identified itself in the calls.

Wednesday, Tom Lukiwski, a Saskatchewan Conservative MP, told a CBC Radio call-in show that he knew nothing of the calls, but that the "buck stops" with Jenny Byrne, director of political operations for the Conservative Party.

'Overwhelming opposition'

The robocall story dominated the beginning of question period on Wednesday. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after saying that "the party followed the rules" insisted, "there has been, in Saskatchewan, overwhelming opposition to the particular proposals."

But that is not the conclusion of the majority of members of the Saskatchewan commission that held hearings on suggested changes to electoral ridings. The proposals prescribe, among other things, that five ridings in Regina and Saskatoon have their borders redrawn so they become urban-only districts.

The Saskatchewan commission, in its final report issued in December, noted that it heard 230 public submissions, far more than it had expected, and found that "a majority opposed the proposal." However, it said, a "significant minority supported it," without giving any figures. The commission also reported it had been sent 3,000 emails, including many identical postcards and petitions. It concluded, "Clearly, a large number of contacts were inspired by the encouragement of members of Parliament opposed to the abolition of rural-urban hybrid districts." 

The report went on to say, "The Commission has little doubt that the general public accepts the new electoral districts," without giving any reasons why it believed this to be true.

However, it said, it had ignored contacts it considered were attempting to gain political advantage for any party.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the NDP's Peter Julian noted that his party won almost a third of the votes across Saskatchewan last election, and yet won no seats. But, he said, his party is feeling "bullish" about the riding boundary redistribution that will be in place for the next election, leaving little doubt that the NDP thinks it can win the proposed redrawn urban seats.

The Conservatives hold 13 of Saskatchewan's 14 seats.

The dissenting commissioner

One of the three commissioners strongly disagreed with the commission's suggestions for seat redistribution. Commissioner David Marit, who is also president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, wrote in his minority report he was worried that such "drastic changes" to the ridings would lead to voter apathy. He said that 75 per cent of the public submissions and contacts were opposed to the commission's boundary proposals.

Marit also recommended the parliamentary committee charged with studying the boundary suggestions reject the commission's majority report, and instead revisit the concept of blended urban-rural ridings.

Saskatchewan Conservative MP Brad Trost, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said his party supports Marit's minority report, and added, "It is completely, as far as I know, unprecedented in Canadian history to have a dissenting report that calls for the rejection of the majority report."

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper vigourously defended the Conservative Party's use of robocalls to engage in the debate over federal riding boundary changes during question period Wednesday in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In question period Wednesday, the prime minister was asked if he would legislate against the boundary commission's authority. In reply, Harper accused the Liberals of trying to overturn boundaries commissions in legislation during the nineties, adding, "We would never do that."

Later in question period, NDP MP Craig Scott, in a question, noted that no party with a "classic sense of ethics" would attempt to pressure a boundaries commission to reverse its proposals by using what he called "robocon propaganda." Surprisingly, it was Harper rather than one of his ministers who stood up to answer Scott’s question, perhaps an indication of how seriously the prime minister views the issue.

Harper replied, "There are actually parliamentary hearings into this. Obviously there is political input, although the final decision is independent,' meaning, perhaps, his office will not try to influence the Conservative MPs who dominate the committee.

The legislation that empowers riding redistribution, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act has overseen six redrawings of electoral districts since the 1960s. The law mandates that the commissions in each province has the final say on what rebordered ridings will look like. Nothing in the act states that a commission's decision must be unanimous.

A parliamentary committee will be examining riding boundary proposals from every province this spring and will hear objections from MPs, which will be forwarded to the various commissions for consideration.

The result of the whole endeavour is that 30 new ridings will be created for the next election, bringing the parliamentary seat total to 338.