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Doug Ford settling the score?

No sooner had Ontario Premier Doug Ford unveiled his plan to shake up Toronto city politics by eliminating nearly half the current council seats than the jokes were flying fast and furious within the federal parliamentary precinct.

As it appeared, at least to the casual (or, alternately, card-carrying partisan) observer, that the newly installed premier might be using the powers of his new office to settle a few scores still simmering from his days on the municipal circuit — which included, among other things, a failed bid for the mayoral post currently held by John Tory — imagine the possible hijinks that could ensue if a prime minister decided to take a similar approach when facing obstreperous provincial governments!

Or as the satirical Twitter account @TrudeauGoogles so succinctly put it: “Could I reduce number of premiers”?

At the risk of spoiling the punchline, the answer is, of course, an emphatic no: Under the Constitution, provinces and territories are inherently protected from such mischievous meddling from the next floor up in Canada’s triple-decker jurisdictional model.

In fact, even when it comes to mapping out the federal electoral boundaries that determine the total number of seats to be allocated to each region, neither the government nor the current House occupants are involved in the initial stages of the process.

Instead, it is handled via 10 independent three-person commissions — one for each province — made up of a judge and two members appointed by the speaker, who are tasked with examining population changes using the latest available census numbers and according to an established formula to ensure equal representation.

After a lengthy round of public consultations, the commission puts forward a proposed redraw, which is then subjected to still more public comment before being submitted to the Commons for a final review.

The rationale behind the aggressively arms-length approach is obvious: By politely but firmly shooing politicians — and political parties — away from the table during the drafting process, there’s far less risk of an outbreak of U.S.-style gerrymandering by attempts to rejig the borders to give a particular candidate or party a head start at the polls.

That quintessentially Canadian common sense is, however, conspicuously absent when it comes to writing — and rewriting — the laws governing the federal electoral process itself.

From imposing — or loosening — limits on campaign spending and donations to setting the parameters on voter outreach and access at the polling stations, it’s up to the House of Commons — and, of course, the Senate — to decide the ground rules on how future electoral battles will be fought.

These are decisions that, by their very nature, will have a direct and personal impact on the future career prospects of every one of the 300-odd MPs currently on the Commons roster, which is why the ensuing debate inevitably breaks down (or, more accurately, melts down) along razor-sharp party lines.

For obvious and entirely understandable reasons, every party — particularly, but not exclusively, those not currently in a majority position — ends up convinced that the other parties are plotting against them, which, in fairness, is almost certainly sometimes albeit not always the case.

But as awkward and inelegant as it may be to put our federal elected officials in charge of the federal electoral machinery, at least the Ford government’s gambit on the local hustings reminds us that it could be worse: We could, for instance, give them even more leeway to manipulate the underlying process, which, given the tendency for politicians to push their fingers into every pie within reach, might make it the best of all realistically possible worlds.

And since Ontario uses the same map to divvy up the available electoral turf, it can at least reassure nervous voters that, while Toronto may be at the mercy of Queen’s Park, provincial ridings are protected from such rearrangements — even by its own legislature.

Kady O’Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.


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