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Boundary battle puts NDP in a bind

One of the most difficult tasks facing any government is achieving a balance between toughness and empathy. Let yourself look weak and the wolves jump and you don't last long (see Stephane Dion).

One of the most difficult tasks facing any government is achieving a balance between toughness and empathy.

Let yourself look weak and the wolves jump and you don't last long (see Stephane Dion). Look harsh or utterly manipulative and you can last longer, but you gradually lose the ability to win friends and influence people (see Stephen Harper).

That's why Justin Trudeau goes to some lengths to connect directly with people, but also doesn't shrink from being hardnosed if he thinks it necessary. He cut off talk of electoral reform because the resulting flak was less dangerous than wading further into a quagmire. He had his finance minister get tough with the provinces on health funding for the sake of budget control.

It's also why Rachel Notley pushed ahead with workers' compensation coverage for farm employees, and with support for pipeline expansion — at the cost of riling voters on both sides of the political spectrum.

The same calculation will be in play when Alberta's new electoral boundaries commission finishes its work. The commission makes recommendations but the government has final say.

One outcome is certain: there will be a lot of unhappy comments from people who will perceive they have lost something.

Making perfectly neat divisions between neighbourhoods and geographic features is never going to be possible in every case.

But the biggest questions will turn on how many more seats to locate in cities and suburbs as opposed to rural areas.

Alberta has been becoming progressively more urbanized for decades. For the last few decades it has been one of the most urbanized provinces in the country. The legislature remained skewed toward rural representation. That's why the Calgary-South East constituency now is home to more than 92,000 people — about twice the provincial average and four times as many as some rural constituencies.

The old Progressive Conservative governments solved the balance issue with a few standard tactics. Population in city constituencies was measured on an as-is basis rather than taking into account how fast they would grow in a year or two. Rural constituencies were generally drawn with as small a population as could reasonably be expected to survive a potential fairness review by a court.

And when the numbers just would not work anymore, the fallback was to expand the number of seats in the legislature, adding urban seats rather than taking away rural ones. That's why the legislature grew from a reasonable 75 members in the 1980s to a more bloated 87 members now. Add more MLAs and it will be tough to squeeze them into the legislature chamber, unless seats and desks are shrunk to aircraft size.

The boundaries commission started its work amid the predictable advance arguments from both rural and urban leaders.

Rural: oh, it's so tough to travel for hours across constituencies and there are so many local municipalities and school boards for an MLA to meet, et cetera. Urban: it isn't fair for 50,000 urban residents to have the same legislature representation as 25,000 rural residents.

Most people recognize that absolute numerical equality may not be completely fair.

But it's a little tougher to get people to admit that many of the well-worn arguments used to justify thinly populated rural constituencies are specious. Even former premier Dave Hancock got into the act recently. He told a reporter that not having enough rural schools could make hour-long rides on school buses even longer while crowding at city schools can be relieved by a bus ride to the next school over.

At the heart of all such arguments lies an implicit assumption. Rural leaders think rural MLAs have a fair grasp of urban issues but that urban MLAs cannot understand or be fair to rural residents.

To that is added the fact that the provincial government directly affects rural living in many visible ways — in road work, bridge maintenance, location of schools and hospitals, all sorts of loan and grant programs that have a relatively large effect on small communities.

At bottom, it's a power struggle, with rural politicians and their allies afraid of losing power. They are acting on one of the primary motivators in politics everywhere. No one wants to lose anything, ever, for any reason.

Notley and the New Democrat MLAs will have one calculation to make on electoral boundaries: how much should they bend the principle of equal voting rights to appease the sensitivities of voters who will probably never like them anyway?

Mark Lisac

About the Author: Mark Lisac

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