Jun 142012

Planet S Magazine

Riding Reboot

Katherine Norton
Skewed election results suggest changes needed

Once a decade, following the census(these days, I guess we should call it the “sorta-census”…), committees are appointed in every province to redraw federal electoral boundaries to reflect demographic changes.

Lately, Saskatchewan’s unusual blended urban-rural ridings and non-representative election results have become a hot topic. In a CBC interview, University of Victoria political scientist Denis Pilon argued that these anomalies have allowed the Conservatives to maximize their representation in Saskatchewan. He acknowledged the party’s strong presence in the province, but said “their ability to turn their votes into seats is way out of line.”

In the 2011 federal election, for instance, the Conservatives won 13 of 14 provincial seats with only 56.3 per cent of the popular vote. The NDP, with 32.3 per cent of the vote, failed to secure a single seat.

“By attaching the urban areas to rural areas, [the Conservatives] basically allowed their rural dominance to overwhelm their urban opponents,” Pilon said.

These concerns have been put forward by more than a few people in the past as well, including in Planet S.U of S political studies professor David McGrane, for example, has been talking about this issue for some time.

The commission overseeing the 2012 Saskatchewan boundary review is headed by Justice Ron Mills, and co-chaired by David Marit, president of Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities and John Courtney from Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

In setting electoral boundaries, the commission is instructed to protect “communities of interest.” In a submission made to the commission this spring, a group of University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina political science professors (a group which includes McGrane, by the way) argued that the current boundaries did not respect the diverse interests of urban and rural residents in the province, and thus was “detrimental to the well functioning of Canadian democracy.”

“The thing that’s striking here is that in Canada, we typically don’t have ridings like that,” says the U of R’s Dr. Lee Ward, a joint author of the submission. “I live in Palliser, and Palliser is a piece of southwestern Regina that is carved off from the rest of the city and connected to Moose Jaw and the surrounding area almost to Swift Current. It just looks odd, like the kind of thing you would see where someone was trying to construct a majority.”

The same thing, of course, is exceedingly familiar to the Saskatoon residents of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar.

To avoid the possibility of gerrymandering, Ward and his colleagues proposed that two exclusively urban ridings be created in both Regina and Saskatoon with another two seats remaining hybrid ridings. The changes, they argued, would ensure “improved democratic representation for the province’s urban and rural residents.”

In an interview following his appointment, commissioner John Courtney was quoted as saying that “partisan interests have never been a factor” in how electoral boundaries are set. Except that doesn’t appear to be the case.

In their initial 2002 report (the last time this process was done), Justice George Bayton and his fellow commissioners recommended Saskatchewan be divided into six urban and eight rural electoral districts. Three seats would be assigned to Saskatoon, while Regina would have two urban and one hybrid urban-rural riding.

After what the commission described as “sparsely attended” public hearings, however, the decision was reversed. In its final report, the commission admitted its recommendations had not been well-received by those who did present. Instead, the argument was made that the blended urban-rural ridings were an accurate reflection of the family, economic and other ties that exist between Saskatchewan’s urban and rural populations.

That’s undoubtedly a noble sentiment. But in light of the skewed results in the four subsequent elections, Pilon questions whether the panel was subjected to outside influence by, as he put it, “Conservatives who recognized that this unusual drawing of the boundaries was working in their favour.”

Once the 2012 commission publishes its proposed electoral map, a series of public hearings will be held across Saskatchewan. No firm timeline has yet been set, but according to the commission secretary the map will likely be published in the Canada Gazette in mid-August.


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