Excerpt from the Official Report of
DEBATES OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY

(Hansard)


October 27, 2015

Motion 26 — Electoral Boundaries Commission Report Proposals

S. Simpson: I am pleased to join the debate. We’re debating the motion put forward by the Government House Leader. The motion reads: “Be it resolved that in accordance with section 14 of the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act…the proposals contained in the Final Report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission tabled in the Legislative Assembly on September 28, 2015 be approved.”

That’s the motion that we’re debating today. It’s an important motion because it makes decisions about what representation starts to look like in this place — numbers of members, the boundaries of the constituencies that they represent — and, largely, will affect how people get represented.

It’s a process that has been evolving over decades in this province. It’s a process of appointing a boundaries commission. After every second provincial general election, an electoral boundaries commission is appointed under the terms of the act and mandated to propose changes to the provincial electoral boundaries.

Under the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act, the Electoral Boundaries Commission consists of “a judge or retired judge of the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal who is nominated by the Lieutenant Governor in Council, (b) a person who is not a member of the Legislative Assembly or an employee of the government and who is nominated by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, after consultation with the Premier and the Leader of the Official Opposition, and (c) the chief electoral officer appointed under the Election Act.”

Those three individuals comprise this commission for the purposes of doing this work. They then go through a process that first requires a series of community consultations that are held across the province, a series of consultations that lead to a preliminary report where the commission puts forward its initial thinking on what boundaries should look like and how they should be comprised, based on the act and based on following and respecting the rules of the act. We’ll talk a little bit about that in a minute.

That’s the process. Then once that preliminary report is out, it comes to the respective parties. But it also becomes a public document and leads to another round of consultation, at which point the boundaries commission then releases a final report.

We have that final report, a report that, as the motion notes, was received here at the end of September. That’s the report that we as the Legislature need to deal with. Our responsibilities are to first deal with a motion of acceptance, to accept and approve of the report. After that happens…. This report will be approved, I suspect unanimously, by this House. It’s a good piece of work. That will be followed very shortly by a piece of legislation that I anticipate the government will introduce immediately after or very shortly after this motion is approved.

That will put the meat on the bones of identifying actual boundaries and maps and all of the work that’s necessary to put into law the substance and content of the report of the commission — an important piece of work.

I want to thank the commissioners. I think that they have done an exceptional job in a very difficult situation — Mr. Justice Thomas Melnick, a justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, who chaired the commission; Beverley Busson, the former commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; and Keith Archer, the Chief Electoral Officer for the province of British Columbia. I think that they did good work, and not particularly easy work.

There are challenges here. They are challenges that we have faced in this province, and we are hardly unique in this country or elsewhere. They’re challenges that we’ve faced in terms of trying to balance the constitutional requirements around representation, fair representation, with effective representation.

The constitutional requirements have often talked about the need to have votes be equal and to be able to have all votes be as equal as they can be. What the act has said often — the rule of thumb in the act — is that no constituency should be more or less than 25 percent over or under the provincial average in terms of population. That’s the rule that is intended to be followed. But while it’s a rule that, in theory, makes a lot of sense, it’s a rule that’s not terribly practical all of the time.

I think we struggle. We struggle with that today, and we will continue to struggle with that in terms of how we address that very critical question.

The way that the issue has been dealt with here. It was dealt with through a piece of legislation that was advanced by the government in 2014. It was an amendment act — the Electoral Boundaries Commission Amendment Act, 2014. What that piece of legislation did is affected the work of the commission in two ways.

Ultimately, it took three of the areas of the province that we know have significant discrepancies and significant challenges and essentially red-circled those areas and said those numbers of constituencies in those three given areas — the Cariboo-Thompson region, the Columbia-Kootenay region and the north region — would not be reduced. Each of those areas would continue with the numbers of seats that they’ve had before.

In Cariboo-Thompson, we have five seats: Cariboo North, Cariboo-Chilcotin, Fraser-Nicola, Kamloops–North Thompson, Kamloops–South Thompson. Those seats all would remain. That area would remain with five.

The Columbia-Kootenay region: Columbia River–Revelstoke, Kootenay East, Kootenay West, Nelson-Creston. Again, those four seats in that area — not to be changed in terms of reducing the number of seats. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t shifts within the boundaries of those constituencies, but they were not to be less than those numbers of seats.

In the north region, the same practice for Nechako Lakes, North Coast, Peace River North, Peace River South, Prince George–Mackenzie, Prince George–Valemount, Skeena and Stikine.

Then the other thing that was done in that piece of legislation, through an amendment at some point, after some discussion, was to provide latitude to the commission to add up to two seats to bring our Legislature from the current number of 85 to 87. Those two seats were to allow some latitude for the commission to be dealing with how to address areas of the province that have fairly rapidly growing populations. I think of some of the suburbs in the Metro Vancouver area and some other areas where populations are growing.

There was significant debate about these decisions to amend the act in this way, and there may be more. I mean, there’s no question that once this is passed and adopted, we may well see a challenge to this. It’s not out of the question that we could see a challenge — a challenge that suggests that allowing this level of discrepancy, in terms of population numbers, will lead some to question whether we’ve gone outside the parameters that are intended in the Constitution Act. We’ll have to see if that happens, and if it does, the process in the courts will take its course.

I think for us here the question becomes the struggle that we face and that we will continue to face for some period of time. This really becomes a struggle between the value of a vote — i.e., making every vote count the same or relatively the same — versus: what is effective representation?

I know I am in a constituency where I have over 59,000 constituents. But it’s also a constituency where I can get in my car and drive across it in 15 minutes, and that’s if traffic isn’t that good.

I have colleagues, and there are colleagues here, who have constituencies that have half that population, maybe less than half that population. But they could get in their car, and it would take them the better part of a week to get across their constituency, if they actually were going to visit maybe the half a dozen or ten communities that they might have in their constituency. The challenges are very different. We need to understand that and understand what effective representation is.

We also, as we move forward, are going to have to understand that in the context of new technologies and to what degree new technology enhances the ability of members in areas, particularly the ones who have the large geographic challenges with smaller populations, as to how they’re able to engage their electorate, maybe using technologies in ways that we wouldn’t have envisioned or thought of before because they just didn’t make a lot of sense to us. That’s work that has to go on and continue.

We need to get at that issue. It’s an issue that has been debated, and it’s an issue that the commission talked about in their report. They talked about the right to vote and the population equality. Much of their discussion…. They discussed it in relation to a particular court case, the Supreme Court of Canada decision in what was called the Saskatchewan reference in 1991. It provides considerable guidance to electoral boundaries commissions as to the standard for relative equality of voting power among citizens.

It references back to section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides that protection of equality. In discussing that reference, there were some interesting conversations had. Writing for the majority view, Madam Justice McLachlin stated: “The purpose of the right to vote enshrined in section 3 of the Charter is not equality of voting power per se but the right to ‘effective representation.’ Ours is a representative democracy. Each citizen is entitled to be represented in government.”

It then comes to the discussion of what constitutes effective representation. The court went on to ask around that. “What are the conditions of effective representation? The first is relative parity of voting power. A system which dilutes one citizen’s vote unduly as compared with another citizen’s vote runs the risk of providing inadequate representation to the citizens whose vote is diluted. The result will be uneven and unfair representation.”

Yet the judgment went on and continued to say that it’s not the only factor that affects what effective representation is and said: “Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic.”

This is 25 years ago, and the debate was on then about what constitutes effective representation and about how you should develop that. I think it’s a very real question for us in British Columbia. It’s a very real question that we are going to have to engage for some time to come, I would hope. We may have this conversation around the legislation. We may be able to have this conversation at a future time.

It may make sense for us to try to grapple with this question, not necessarily in the context of the work of the Boundaries Commission, but maybe within the work of another entity, whether it’s a legislative committee or what it is, that isn’t tasked with the job of drawing boundaries, which all of us, as elected representatives and all the political parties, have a keen interest in. We all know that changes in boundaries can change the fortunes of candidates, of incumbents, of other candidates of political parties depending on where you land your boundaries.

We all have vested interests that need to be taken into account. The broader question of how we square that circle about more quickly growing, largely urban and suburban constituencies, with numbers that are getting up there, versus rural and northern constituencies, which are challenging today to represent effectively for a whole bunch of reasons…. Every member, regardless of the side of House, faces those challenges. How do we balance that? How do we balance these two things? What can we do to make the case — whether it’s different resources, different views — and to make the argument that we have found a way to improve the situation?

I don’t think we’re ever going to fix the problem in its entirety, but how do we improve the situation so that we begin to remove those challenges? As colleagues have said, we now…. You know, maybe for the next couple of elections, maybe we’ve found the solution for the next election or two with this. We’ll see, and we’ll see whether we do end up with this law being taken to court or not. I have no clue whether we will, but I’m sure that there are people out there looking at it who say they could make the case around the constitution.

Whatever is done there, the problem we face is not likely to improve. The problem we face is likely to grow more significant and more clear as we are going to see more and more people moving into urban areas. You’ll see more people moving into the Kelownas and the Kamloopses and the Prince Georges and those communities, potentially, but for many large parts of the province, I’m not certain we’re going to see that. What we’re certainly not going to see is in the provincial growth, population growth in the province as people come here…. That growth is largely going to be in urban and suburban areas. I think that’s a reality that most of us would probably concur with, so we need to figure out what that balance is.

The work that the commission has done with this piece of work, I think, has gone some way, under the parameters that they were given, to in fact deal with that and to deal with some of those questions as effectively as they can. I think that they looked pretty well at how to be able to do that. They added a couple of seats in areas that are certainly high-growth areas. It makes some sense to do that. They largely, I think, as a commission, did the things that they needed to do, which was to look at a sense of community, to look at areas that naturally went together, to look at what boundaries made sense in terms of a whole series of criteria around demographics, around communities of interest and around population.

They did a good piece of work. Interestingly, they produced a preliminary report that I know members on this side and others, I think, would look at and say: “I have things that I, on my wish list, would like to have been different in this report.” There are things that, if I’m looking at my interests, I would have liked to have seen done a little differently. But if I’m being truthful with myself, I would also say it’s a pretty good piece of work.

Probably the best advice that I could have given to the commission is: “You generally got it right in the preliminary report, and maybe the best thing for you to do is take all of that advice you get between the preliminary and the final report, say ‘thank you very much,’ set it aside and continue with what you have done, unless you find some minor tweaking that’s brought to your attention that makes some sense.”

That’s largely, I think, what the commission did. They took what they learned and what they proposed in the preliminary report and said: “We’re going to stick by this.” It appears, certainly from the motion — and I congratulate the government on this — that the government has accepted the report in its entirety. The opposition concurs with that position — that we should accept this report in its entirety and advance the next electoral map for British Columbia as the one that has been put forward by Justice Melnick, Ms. Busson and Mr. Archer.

In doing that, I think we’re going to have a map that will be slightly different but I think a map that will deal with a number of the questions we have.

We will have two new members come to the House, and two is probably enough. I must say that I’ve not had tons of people coming into my office saying: “I wish we had more MLAs in Victoria.” I haven’t had a lot of that comment. I think that a couple…. If that’s what it takes and that’s what it took for the commission to be able to round this out in a way that makes sense to them, then I think that that was a good decision.

In terms of how this affects my area, I’m happy. I have had no change to my constituency of Vancouver-Hastings. My population stays the same, roughly — 59,491 people in my constituency, a constituency that has significant diversity. About 40 percent of my constituents are Chinese-speaking. It’s a constituency that has wealth and has serious poverty, a constituency that faces many of the challenges that urban members, in particular, are aware of around cost pressures, around housing costs and that.

But when you look at its boundaries — the primary consideration for the commission — it’s a constituency where the boundaries make sense — Boundary Road on the east, Commercial Drive on the west, the waterfront to the north and 12th Avenue to the south. It’s a contained area, pretty straightforward.

It’s one where you can identify many communities of interest, one where you can see how it makes sense as a reasonably coherent and cohesive entity. One that I find…. While there certainly is diversity of views and interests in the constituency, when I talk to people about the community, about the neighbourhoods, about the shopping areas, about the challenges around transportation, challenges around housing, those challenges don’t change dramatically from one conversation to another.

People’s own circumstances may put them in a different place in that conversation. But in terms of what the challenges look like, most people are of one mind about that and generally concur on what those challenges are. They have some different solutions for them. Many of them are challenges that we’ve seen no satisfactory solutions for, and I’m not sure that we will. They’re challenges that are in front of us that are pretty complex.

Obviously, one in my constituency that stands out is housing costs and housing affordability. I know that lots of people have tried to get their head around that in different ways, and none of us have been successful in finding what that solution looks like. None of us have found the proposal that begins to take us to that solution. I’m sure it’s one that, I know for me, I will be continuing to wrap my head around hopefully for some years to come, I suspect, trying to find a way to address and deal with those issues.

Again, what the commission was mandated to do was to truly look at all of these issues and try to build communities of interest. In my situation, it was a matter of taking my constituency, doing an evaluation of it, presumably, and making the decision that it should be left alone in terms of its boundaries. That was a good decision if you look at it in terms of the kinds of objectives and the kinds of criteria that you would hope a commission would have.

I would hope and think that they brought that same rigour to the assessment of other constituencies. I know that in some cases, a number of cases — not a large number — there were significant changes to constituency boundaries. For others, there were some small changes, some significant changes.

I haven’t had this experience, but I certainly would believe that if you’re a member who represents a constituency where they’ve made significant changes to your boundaries, that’s something that gets your attention and may raise your concerns for a whole variety of reasons.

First, clearly, I think is to make the decision about whether those changes actually reflect what makes sense in terms of a community of interest in your constituency. Are you meeting the needs of that community of interest?

We’re all political animals. We’re all here and elected, and we also will evaluate it depending on what it does to our potential electoral fortunes going forward. That’s human nature. That’s reality. It’s something that we would all do under those circumstances. Thankfully, that concern, that political consideration, is one that the commission does not concern itself with. It’s not a concern that the commission pays any attention to. It’s something that the commission should not pay any attention to. It’s their job to build the best map they can build, looking at the interests of British Columbians.

They need to look at those demographic questions. They need to look at those questions of balance and fairness. They need to look at those questions around what the challenges are to effectively be able to represent a given region or constituency. How do you build a map that does that in the most reasonable way possible? How do you ensure that the trade-offs that you make in building that map are trade-offs that are in the best interests? We know that these things are not always black and white. They’re often shades of grey. That’s the challenge that the commission faces.

I think this has been a very difficult piece of work to do. I was not at all convinced, when this work began, that in fact, this commission could come back with a map that made sense. When I looked at the province and at the discrepancies and at the direction that was brought by the amendment act, I wasn’t at all certain, myself, that we could see a map at the end of the day that would pass the nod test, that would have people saying: “You know, all things considered, that’s about as good as you’re going to get, considering the challenges that were in front of the commission to be able to meet their objectives and meet their mandate.”

But I was wrong. I have to say that they’ve done a good job. They have met those challenges in large part, in my mind. There are small things I might disagree with, but I’m not sure that I would be right about those things. I think that they have accomplished what they set out to do, without perfection. But perfection’s not something that we see a lot of in this place, so that’s okay. Without perfection, but generally a map that most people in our communities….

I think this becomes probably the bigger question than us saying we like or don’t like a particular set of boundaries or a particular situation. It is the question of whether people in your community and in your constituencies — and in constituencies across the province — would look at the map and say: “You know, I’m not sure I agree with it all, but it makes sense to me. I get it. I understand how these decisions got made. I know why the commission chose to go there. I can live with this.” In some places, that’s what it’s about.

The work of the commission now is done, I believe, and I believe that we will leave this place having adopted this report and having adopted the appropriate legislation that will come with it. But we still face the challenge of how we deal with balancing population versus effective representation, ensuring that the voices of the north and the rural areas continue to be heard in this place in numbers that allow that voice to be clear and strong and yet still reflect the realities of where people live in British Columbia. Not an easy question to resolve, and one that I think we need to turn our heads to as legislators in the next little bit of time, knowing it will be eight years before another commission has to do its work.

There is work we could do earlier than that to, at least, provide some direction that may be helpful to a future commission and may be able to make their job a little bit easier and may answer some of the anxieties and questions for people, particularly in our northern and rural communities, who worry about whether their representation is at risk somewhere down the road. They deserve that representation. We need to find that balance. I think it’s possible, but it’s a lot of work. I think we should probably get at that.

For now, I’m pleased to support the motion. I look forward to the legislation when it comes forward.

https://www.leg.bc.ca/documents-data/debate-transcripts/40th-parliament/4th-session/20151027pm-Hansard-v30n4

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