Billed as an “independent body” established under Alberta legislation, the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission dropped a series of rural bombshells in late May when it tendered its interim report.
Collapsing Cardston-Taber-Warner into a huge new Taber-Vulcan riding, as well as a southwest riding carved from the remnants called Cardston-Kainai, was among the commission’s recommendations. They have already been met with opposition by the region’s largely Wildrose MLAs, who have been uniformly critical of the implications and challenges the changes represent with regard to geography and population.
Cardston-Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter has vowed to contest the changes, but it is by no means certain if adding his opposition to the fray will be enough to stop southern Alberta’s boundary re-write. At the same time, taking on the gargantuan geographic proportions of a proposed riding like Taber-Vulcan carries with it its own set of problematic issues for a prospective candidate. Problems that are far outside the understanding of an urban MLA who views their constituency as a matter of city blocks, not square kilometres.
What is perhaps more disturbing, however, is the commission’s recommendation to collapse three ridings throughout rural Alberta in favour of the creation of three new urban ridings, which is considered to be reflective of stronger population growth in the province’s urban areas.
All of which might seem right and fair peering down from some towering bureaucratic window in Edmonton on the ant-like populace of Alberta, but the continued erosion of a rural voice in politics is no laughing matter to citizens and voters who see increasing evidence that the concerns of government end abruptly at spitting distance from the municipal boundaries of Calgary and Edmonton.
The commission makes much of the concept of voter parity principles in defense of its recommended changes, suggesting that because population growth in rural Alberta has been outpaced by urban areas, this is justification enough for stripping three ridings from rural Alberta.
And while the creation of new ridings in urban areas based on population growth is probably justified — some current urban riding populations are more than double the average in Alberta — maintaining the province’s riding count at 87 would appear to be the fly in the proverbial ointment.
For obvious political reasons, bumping the number of ridings to 90 — an even number — is unfeasible and could lead to deadlock in a Parliamentary system. But redrawing boundaries to include 89 or 91 ridings is not an impossible task. And while many might argue this would ultimately be the same as stripping ridings from rural Alberta in favour of urban areas, at least rural representation would maintain a status quo instead of seeing further erosion of its interests in Edmonton.
The optics of the recommendations also raise an air of suspicion. Although nominally an ‘independent body’, it doesn’t take a political scientist to point out who is likely to benefit in a 2019 election from increasing the number of ridings in urban Alberta at the expense of rural Alberta: the NDP are almost exclusively an urban-stronghold party, while current conservative incarnations draw much of their strength from areas that are being targeted for collapse by the commission.
Independent bodies can profess their innocence with regard to partisan motivations until they’re blue in the face, but the actual evidence usually speaks volumes. Perhaps the ancient legal concept of cui bono, or who benefits, says it best — it certainly won’t be rural Alberta or the province’s opposition parties.