[UPDATED: Sept. 26, 2018] The Keystone Agriculture Producers (KAP) is urging farmers to defend their interests and democracy.
They’re hoping farmers will tell the Manitoba Electoral Divisions Boundaries Commission not to strip rural Manitoba of one of its seats in the Legislative Assembly and give Winnipeg an additional seat, furthering its political power.
“We know it’s going to be frustrating to be asked to get off the combine and go to a meeting but it’s an important issue and if members want to have their voices heard unfortunately it looks like this is going to be their only opportunity to do so,” KAP’s general manager James Battershill said in an interview Sept. 12.
The independent, nonpartisan commission recommends the seat switch in its interim report.
But KAP contends the commission’s analysis is flawed because it ignores the flexibility the commission has under the Electoral Divisions Act.
“What is clear from the commission’s interim report is that no effort was made to consider rural community interests when realigning Manitoba’s electoral divisions,” Battershill said.
“It’s no secret to anyone that follows politics in Manitoba that the City of Winnipeg really carries an enormous amount of political power already relative to the rest of the province and gets an inordinate amount of the political attention as a result of it.”
KAP recommends the commission revise its report or KAP will “investigate legal options.”
The total number of assembly seats is 57. The commission’s mandate is to set constituency boundaries so each Member of the Legislative Assembly represents roughly the same number of people.
However, the commission has some wiggle room, Battershill said. The number of people per riding south of the 53 parallel can vary up to 10 per cent and by 25 per cent for those north of 53.
*Rural Manitoba’s population has increased since the last review of electoral boundaries in 2008, but at a slower pace than Winnipeg’s. As a result the share of Manitoba’s population that resides outside Winnipeg is continuing to decline.
The commission not only ignored the flexibility allowed, but a provision under the act stating the commission “shall” recognize “community or diversity of interest of the population,” Battershill said.
With that 10 per cent flexibility in population per, riding the commission could redraw the boundaries so the number of seats in rural Manitoba and Winnipeg remain unchanged at 26 and 31, respectively, he said.
Rural Manitobans would be slightly over-represented in the assembly and Winnipeggers slightly under-represented, he said.
(Based on the population figures used the commission if the number of Winnipeg and non-Winnipeg seats remained unchanged Winnipeg with 55 per cent of the population would have 54 per cent of the seats; rural Manitoba with 45 per cent of the population would have 46 per cent of the seats. Under the commission’s plan Winnipeg and rural Manitoba would have 56 and 44 per cent of the seats, respectively.)
“What it looks like is they’re trying to do the 2028 commission’s job for it,” Battershill said.
“Well, you’re really just taking away a seat from rural Manitobans a decade earlier than you need to.”
Commission chair, Richard Chartier, who is also Chief Justice of Manitoba, alluded to that.
“Urban areas are growing more quickly, and future population growth, especially in the last five years in the City of Winnipeg, indicates that in the next 10 years you’ll see the ridings in Winnipeg over the quotient,” he said during Battershill’s presentation, based on a recording provided by the commission.
The commission’s guidelines state projected population is to be taken into account.
Representation by population is a long-held democratic tenet and one KAP agrees with, Battershill said. But it’s not the only one. Community interest is another, which the act spells out.
It’s also a principle upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.
“The purpose of the right to vote enshrined in section 3 of the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) is not equality of voting power per se but the right to ‘effective representation,” the court said in a 1991 ruling. “The right to vote therefore comprises many factors, of which equity is but one. “Effective representation and good government in this country compel that factors other than voter parity, such as geography and community interests, be taken into account in setting electoral boundaries.”
According to Chief Justice Chartier, Section 3 “means effective representation with the primary consideration being relative equality or parity of voting power so that one vote counts the same whether you are anywhere in the province. They have indicated — the Supreme Court — there has to be effective representation so if the effective representation can’t be done by trying to get relative voting parity then you can vary.”
Like justice, democracy needs not only to be seen to be done, but seen to be believed.
“The reality is in the crisis in democracy we see right now people don’t feel as though their vote matters and people don’t feel as though politicians… care about their concerns,” Battershill said during the interview. “I think what’s driving this populist push in politics…
“Many in the United States cast ballots for a candidate who they knew was a controversial choice. Yet they voted for him because they believe that they have been abandoned by the political establishment and that the system has failed them.”
There’s already rural-urban divide, Battershill said.
“We hear these complaints from our members often,” he said. “They decry the lack of reasonable internet and telecommunication services, declines in the provision of healthcare and other government services, the flooding of rural property and communities to protect Winnipeg, increase in rural crime rates going unaddressed by political leaders, and many other challenges. It is the opinion of many of KAP’s members that our political system is stacked against those who live outside the perimeter highway.
“The unfortunate reality is that they could be sowing the seeds of strong dissent within rural communities. You may see… rural Manitobans expressing their frustration in ways that aren’t particularly positive
“I worry… that at some point in the future we’re going to be staring at people that are more interested in butting heads and screaming than coming up with solutions.”
*UPDATE: An earlier version of this story indicated that rural Manitoba’s population declined since 2008. We regret the error.