You can be forgiven for not reading the latest government news announcement about the appointment of another commission to consult with the public. No, it’s not another devious ploy by the NDP government to push their favourite hobby horse – that being climate change and how Alberta taxpayers are going to save the planet. It’s a routine appointment that must be made about every 10 years – its the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission. Its task is to recommend how the province’s 87 electoral districts should be redistributed as per population changes. One might innocently presume that the process is straightforward. Divide the total population of around 4.2 million by 87 to arrive at the average per riding, then locate the population concentrations, and draw up the new map. But this being Alberta, nothing is ever simple.
As you might suspect, redistribution of our electoral boundaries has a lot to do with our history, politics, and which party is in power. Its not unique to Alberta, tinkering with constituency boundaries is an old political black art. It even has its own name, “gerrymandering,” and it goes back to the time when the first election was held by means of district representation. The party in power would carefully draw a line around areas which were known to vote for them and create a riding. Areas that were known to vote otherwise would become part of neighbouring ridings where their votes had less impact. In Alberta that process saw significant sections of urban areas being drawn into much larger rural ridings thereby diluting the urban vote which was not always as supportive of the government in power as the rural vote. Therein lies the perennial political problem – how do you address the urban/rural split and the impact on each group’s respective share of the 87 legislative seats? This was important to the previous PC government as their power base was in rural and small town Alberta which the party overwhelmingly dominated and which kept them in power for 44 years. That saw almost half the seats favouring rural areas.
But there is a reality to the urban/rural split. Alberta is the most urbanized province in Canada with the rural and small town areas declining. The figure used is a 50/50 urban/rural split, but that’s not the case when what is rural becomes more clearly defined. Some say that only Calgary and Edmonton are urban – I beg to differ. If you live in a residential subdivision in Red Deer, Lethbridge, Lloydminster, Grand Prairie, Spruce Grove, St. Albert or Fort McMurray you are as far from being rural as those living in the so-called urban centres. Its more a 70/30 split.
To NDP political strategists the hope that the Commission will create more ridings in Calgary and Edmonton is a dream come true. Many entertain the thought that any increase will solidify their base and perhaps add to the ridings they hold in both cities. That hope will only be realized if the PC and Wildrose voters continue to split the right-wing vote. The NDP has little hope of keeping or picking up more so-called rural ridings, so for them the fewer ridings outside of the urban centres, the better.
On the other hand, rural and agricultural organizations are concerned with the continuous concentration of ridings moving away from rural areas – less political representation is never welcome. Perhaps they need to engage in more lobbying all political parties to have them establish robust and detailed agriculture and rural development policies. Experience has shown that just because a certain party dominates rural ridings it doesn’t necessarily result in enlightened policies that favour rural areas. In fact, complacency sets in and rural voters are taken for granted again and again.
Will there be more big city ridings by the next election? Absolutely – the commission has no real choice considering the dramatic increase in the urban population. In the past, the former PC government intervened using technical exemptions or just added more ridings to preserve an equal balance of rural and urban ridings, but there is no danger of the present NDP government taking those steps. I suspect they will only intervene if the commission does not favour more big city ridings. For the Wildrose opposition party its guaranteed with redistribution that they will lose rural seats.
This is another reason why both the Wildrose and PC parties should merge – it would make the process of keeping existing seats and picking up new ones a lot easier.