For a province that has only changed governments three times since 1905, we’ve spent a lot of time and money tweaking electoral boundaries. In fact, Alberta redraws its riding maps after every second election.
We have a body called the Electoral Boundaries Commission to do that work; two members appointed by the government, two by the opposition. Open, transparent, democratic.
Considering our growth patterns in the past decade — and the migration of people from rural areas into the cities — keeping the legislature representative of our population makeup is also a good idea.
But every time the commission is engaged, the complaints grow louder that our legislature is not representative of the real urban/rural divide.
Since 1986, growth in the cities — mostly in Calgary — has been accommodated by eliminating two rural seats and two Edmonton seats and giving them to Calgary, keeping the number of MLAs at 83.
But even with that, with more than two-thirds of Alberta living in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, this economic region controls only a bit more than half the seats in the legislature.
The answer for the commission is to allow it to add four more seats, but even if Calgary got all them all (can you imagine what would hit the fan if that happened?), a Calgarian’s vote would still probably count for less than that of anyone from a rural riding.
And a lot of people say Calgary as a whole has too much political power already, never mind that of the whole Hwy 2 corridor clear up to the capital.
Safe to say, then, that this commission isn’t going to win friends anywhere when it reports by June 2010.
Adding a new political party to the mix — the Wildrose Alliance, whose power base looks more likely to be rural than urban — only complicates things for Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives.
As Opposition Leader David Swann has pointed out, it would be uncomfortable to ask longtime sitting Tory MLAs to actually fight for a nomination in an amalgamated riding, while the major cities get to float in new candidates.
So to avoid that, we’re buying out older nurses’ employment contracts and shipping our young nursing grads out of the province to find a job, but we’ll be hiring more MLAs.
New teachers whose contracts hadn’t been signed yet are being told to wait tables because the province wants its education money back, and we’ll be leasing office space and support staff on the taxpayers’ dime for more backbenchers to vote the party line.
But how do we address the new balance of power in our province?
A few years back, the Liberals wanted to cut the legislature to 65 seats. We have an average of 37,000 people per riding (with a few ridings having much fewer right now and a few others having much more), but compared to other provinces, we have a lot of lawmakers on the payroll.
Ontario, for instance, has about three times more people per riding than Alberta, although nobody is bragging much about any greater legislative efficiency.
It’s a safe bet that with 65 seats, we’d be in the same mess we’re in now but with fewer pensions to pay.
Adding MLAs is not a full answer to the urban/rural divide in Alberta.
Engaging people into Alberta’s political debate, enough at least that they feel it’s worth their time to vote, remains the most important consideration.
You can begin by listening to the boundaries panel when it makes its stop in Red Deer on Oct. 9.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.