Tuesday, April 14, 2015

BOUNDARIES QUAGMIRE: DEMOGRAPHIC RECKONING

Those who felt the Electoral Boundaries Commission could not do their work on time, must be disappointed.

The commission, chaired by Justice Robert Stack has hit the first milestone towards ensuring the provinces electorate has a new 40 member electoral map in time for this Fall's legislatively mandated election.

Despite NDP Leader Earle McCurdy's assessment that the proposed redistribution is major cutback in democratic representation for rural Newfoundland, a quick review of the distribution shows rural areas are still a little over-represented compared to the densely populated Northeast Avalon.

By my count, rural regions of Newfoundland lost six seats to St. John's loosing two and half. Lets not forget that Labrador kept four seats and is wildly overrepresented, if you believe that every vote should be equal.

The impact is great because past commissions have tried to ensure the impact on rural seats necessitated by a three decade decline in the populations of rural communities. Instead of a gradual readjustment, the Stack Commission had the job of reducing the total number of seats  by eight without impacting Labrador at a time when the rural population has shrunk dramatically.

However, Canadian democracy strives for a higher value, effective representation. This means that the significant hurdles presented by vast geography and  sparsely populated rural areas are balanced, when possible with densely populated regions.

The majority of Newfoundland and Labrador's population resides on the Avalon Peninsula which geographically makes up a much smaller geographic mass than Labrador. Rocks do not vote, put they do produce important natural resource revenues. Politicians from all parties pandered to the Labrador cause for 4 seats fearing a rise in Labrador nationalism or separatism.

I think the commission has done a decent job balancing the population and geographic challenges of providing a 40 seat house  that provides effective representation. The consultation phase should provide the opportunity for tweaks that build on this proposal.

The enabling legislation allowed for two seats on the island, many expected that the tip of the Northern Peninsula and South Coast to be designated as special cases. Only the South Coast was leaving the huge Great Northern Peninsula with on less seat. The geography and the principle of  effective representation certainly justifies rethinking the decision to eliminate a seat in the region.

There are some boundaries that defy a community of interest and reflect a need to balance the size of the provincial districts. Should any rural seats be as large as urban seats where there is much less geography and constituency demands? Could more seats in St. John's exceed the 10% rule to create less pressure on regions with less concentrated populations?

I suppose that opens the door to a much larger discussion on effective representation and the work load of rural members vs urban members.

This is not a done deal, it is a working document. The job now is to tweak or reject. To work with this blueprint or protest against it. McCurdy is right, this is the Rubicon for rural areas, the balance of power is shifting. When that shift occurs, rural regions will loose the representation they have become accustomed to. They will not be catered to for votes. The slow demise will accelerate until our outport way of life is just for tourists, or on display in the Room next to the Great Awk. 

My issue with this is that policy makers have left rural communities out of the discussion. Is it not time for a frank, honest, heartbreaking conversation about the costs of providing health, education, municipal and road infrastructure in low population areas that may no longer be sustainable. These areas should be part of a transparent discussion as opposed to a slow agonizing death that is designed to close the communities through attrition.

The question is of social justice, what kind of representation do we want - one where the majority rules and the minority suffers or do we accept some sort of compromise? 

Democracy can be messy. Have your say, make a presentation to the commission.

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