The proposed bill will give the Electoral Boundaries Commission the power to create new ridings in densely populated areas and eliminate ridings in rural areas with shrinking populations

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The NDP government introduced a bill Monday that will allow the Electoral Boundaries Commission to redraw some of B.C.’s ridings to reflect a growing population in some areas.

The reforms, if passed, will likely increase the number of ridings in B.C., especially in densely populated urban areas where the NDP thrived in the October election, as the commission has the power to increase the number of seats from 87 to 93.

B.C.’s population has grown by half a million people since changes were last made to electoral ridings in 2015, Attorney General David Eby said when presenting amendments to the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act.

“These amendments are intended to equip the commission with the discretion and flexibility it needs to make recommendations for electoral district boundaries that balance the principle of representation by population with other effective representation concerns,” Eby said.

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The new law would overturn legislation passed by the Liberals in 2014 which prevented the commission members from reducing representation in the North, Columbia-Kootenay and Cariboo-Thompson regions, creating 17 protected enclaves in B.C.

The B.C. Liberals say the measures will decrease representation for people who live in Northern B.C. and could merge rural ridings — traditional Liberal strongholds — into geographic areas the size of Europe.

Mike de Jong, Liberal critic for the attorney general’s office, said the proposed changes are bad news for anyone who lives north of Cache Creek and values political representation.

The changes “will further erode representation in the largest geographic regions of our province and I believe it does a real disservice to the people who reside in the North or in the Kootenays,” he said.

De Jong doesn’t dispute the reality of population growth in urban areas of the province but “similarly, I don’t think you’ll find many people who believe it enhances our democracy to have ridings that involve people having to travel 300 or 400 miles to see their MLAs … or living in a single constituency that is as large as a European country.”

The Electoral Boundaries Commission, comprised of three independent and non-partisan experts, is established after every two general elections to propose changes to the area, boundaries and names of B.C.’s electoral districts to ensure each MLA represents a similar number of people.

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In the October election, the NDP went from a 41-seat minority to a 57-seat majority, picking up seats in former Liberal strongholds such as Surrey-Cloverdale, and winning out in battleground ridings in North Vancouver, Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Maple Ridge, Surrey and Coquitlam.

In a press release Monday, Eby’s office said the amendments ensure political boundaries are drawn up not by politicians, but by an independent commission. The commission will be asked to uphold “the fundamental democratic principle that everyone’s vote should be reasonably equal in weight in choosing elected officials,” the Attorney General’s ministry said in a statement.

The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized the country’s unique challenge of representing vast and often sparsely populated rural ridings, allowing ridings to be drawn based on considerations other than equal representation by population.

University of British Columbia political scientist Gerald Baier said because of the geographical size of Canada, it’s the reality across provinces that some ridings are made up of larger boundaries with fewer voters.

MLAs representing such ridings will raise the argument that it’s more difficult to reach their constituents, especially during elections, so creating even larger boundaries would put those politicians at a further disadvantage, he said.

Baier said the Liberals would have a strong argument objecting to rural ridings in the north being combined into a larger land mass but people living in urban areas with high population growth have a legitimate argument that they’re being poorly represented and their vote lacks the same punch.

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To avoid allegations of political influence, Baier said “I’m sure the NDP will rely on the idea that they’re kind of giving the commission room (for independent decision-making) and hopefully they give the that commission room.”

The commission last changed B.C.’s riding boundaries in March 2015 when it added seats in Surrey and Richmond, increasing the number of MLAs from 85 to the current 87. Surrey has gone from two seats in 1985 to nine today.

Of the 30 seats added to the legislature over the last 30 years, 21 were in Vancouver, its suburbs or the Fraser Valley, which reflects the rapid population growth and urbanization in and around Metro Vancouver.

In a 2015 report, the commission members, chaired at the time by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Thomas Melnick, were critical of legislation that prevented them from redrawing boundaries to better reflect population growth. For example, rapid community growth in Surrey could mean there are twice as many people in the riding of Surrey-Guildford compared to Peace River North which effectively means that the vote of someone who lives in a less populated area counts for more.

The commission said in the report the existing law effectively froze “the number of electoral districts in regions with slower or negative growth (which) has led to more electoral districts further from the provincial average in the rest of the province.”

The commission said this effect is most prominent in areas of rapid population growth.

As a result, the commission was concerned about growing population inequality if no changes were made to existing ridings.

When asked how the B.C. legislature will physically fit 93 seats since it’s already jam-packed with benches, NDP house leader Mike Farnworth, a self-described “parliamentary geek” said benches are the answer, pointing to the same space-saving seating arrangement used in houses of parliament in the United Kingdom and New South Wales in Australia.

kderosa@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/katiederosayyj

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