The Politics of Seat Reductions in Canadian Legislative Assemblies.

AuthorMarland, Alex

How do Canadian parliaments determine the correct number of representatives required for their assemblies? There is really no objective answer. In this article, the author explains common reasoning used to promote or oppose proposals to reduce the number of seats in a legislature. He concludes that whether a person believes a legislative assembly warrants more or fewer private members, what matters is whether those members have a meaningful role. This article synthesizes information presented in "Fewer politicians and smaller assemblies: how party elites rationalize reducing the number of seats in a legislature--lessons from Canada," an article the author published in a recent issue of the Journal of Legislative Studies.


Perhaps the most subjective aspect of any legislative assembly is the number of representatives. Periodically, members of Canadian legislatures and electoral boundaries commissions work towards a new representation order. The redistribution of electoral districts to reflect population changes sometimes broadens to discussing adjusting the total number of seats. Occasionally, the discussion turns on reducing the seat count.

It is easy to form an opinion about whether there are too many politicians. Debates get heated as democratic theorists and practitioners take entrenched positions. Marginalized communities lobby for special treatment to ensure ample representation while taxpayer groups criticize government largesse. Throughout, public opinion polls show enthusiasm for a smaller legislature, but there can be public empathy for ensuring that women and minorities are appropriately represented. The polarization reveals plenty of reasons why more representatives is better for democracy and just as many reasons why a smaller assembly is desirable.

This article looks at the political motivations behind diminishing the number of members in provincial legislative assemblies; all Canadian provinces have done so at least once (Table 1). A wave of reductions occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s, then after the 1990s economic recession and again following the late 2000s Great Recession. Accordingly, as will be shown, the main reason that premiers want to reduce the number of politicians is to assist the government with pursuing austerity. It is unlikely that a proposal to eliminate seats will proceed in the absence of dire economic circumstances, or that a leader will be interested unless it is a precursor for a more ambitious agenda.

Reasons for More Politicians

A democratic appeal for more politicians reflects a belief that better government will result. Members of a legislative assembly hold the cabinet to account. But the principle of responsible government can be shaky when many elected representatives are either ministers or ensconced into quasi-government appointments, such as parliamentary secretaries. This is common in Canadian provinces where membership in assemblies ranges from a low of 27 in Prince Edward Island to a high of 124 in Ontario. The reduced autonomy that comes with "executive creep" contributes to centralized power in the premier's office. (1) Executive creep is especially dire in small provinces where the cabinet outnumbers the opposition. Critics are tasked with monitoring multiple ministers and the smooth function of legislative committees is compromised. Conversely in a large legislature more business can be referred to committees for study. Organized interests have more difficulty exuding influence and legislation is less likely to rush through.

A compelling reason for more seats is diverse representation. Electoral districts with a high concentration of Indigenous or ethnic populations can warrant their own representatives. The reduced competition to win a party nomination makes it easier for a larger array...

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