Chair for Sale. $900M O.B.O.
About this article: Canadians outside the maritimes think it's absurd that PEI, with our small population, has so many seats in parliament. And in todays political landscape it is. Are those seats really a benefit to Islanders or can they be used as a bargaining chip for better things?
I walked into a room on a late August afternoon where a small group of soldiers was cleaning rifles. There was a butt here, a trigger mechanism there. Cleaning rods lying on the carpet. Small 1x1 white pads skewed across tables.
“Hey Mac,” one of the guys says to me as I dramatically walk over outstretched legs trying to make my way across the room. “Are you from PEI?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “Why’s that? Ever been?”
“No,” he replied. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from PEI”
“No way,” I say, smiling. “That’s cool. I hope I’m doing a good job representing my compatriots.”
“I just think it’s crazy how many MPs you have,” he says. Okay, I think. No small talk here.
“What’s the population there again?”
“About 140 thousand” I reply. “Where are you from again?”
“Laval,” he replies. I pick up part of a weapon. I think I’ve met more people from Laval than Montreal proper. I’m not sure what the population is but I know it’s a lot more than PEIs. He asks if PEI has four MPs?
“Yeah,” I reply with a chuckle. “Wild isn’t it.”
He doesn’t chuckle or even smile. I know he’s heavily invested in political affairs and for him it's a legit question. It is for me too. It’s not the first time that someone--always a non-maritimer, has posed the question. From guys who barely know a thing about Canadian affairs to the well-educated.
“What can I say. We used to be somebody,” has been my reply to this question as least twice. I know PEI was prosperous at the time of Confederation. Yet I’m still not quite sure why PEI has four MPs plus 4 senators for a population of about 145 thousand people. It really is pretty ludicrous when you think about it.
The amount of population you need for a seat in PEI is about a third of the national average in constituencies across the country, Christopher Moore tells Mayzil. He literally wrote the book on confederation. It’s called 1867 and is acclaimed as one of--if not the most wholesome history of the era.
One of Moore’s brothers live in northern BC. “I remember him saying a few years ago, ‘Prince Edward Island has the same population as the city of Prince George. But PEI has 4 senators and 4 MPs’” he says with a chuckle.
Clearly PEI is over represented in Ottawa. The reasons why are rooted in history. But the real question is whether or not it’s to our benefit to have so many MPs and senators in parliament? And if not, can those seats perhaps be used to barter with?
First, we need to quickly understand how we got here.
When Confederation was being formed, PEI was prosperous and very much in a position to negotiate. When Canada was formed in 1867 the terms weren’t good enough so PEI refused. A few years later in 1873 when the new railroad nearly bankrupted the colony, PEI was forced to join the union. Among other things the new province was given 6 seats in the House of Commons. Not too bad.
The Fathers of Confederation held tight to the principle of representation by population between the regions. But shortly after PEI joined Canada the population of Quebec and Ontario rose dramatically and the west was being built.
In the early part of the 1900s, western Canada was expanding rapidly. More and more money from the provinces was being diverted to what is now the Prairie Provinces and British Columbia. Plus John A. MacDonald’s National Policy was diverting industry to central Canada. PEI was poor and losing its representation in the House of Commons.
In 1915, the Island was down to 4 MPs and at risk of losing another one or two to be given to the west. Islanders were really feeling exploited. Changes were being made to the constitution so Island Premier Mathieson was sent to make a deal.
“When the western provinces came into Confederation they kind of added on a few senate seats for each one of them,” Moore explains. “They reorganized it so basically there would be 24 seats in the maritimes, 24 in central Canada and 24 in western Canada. It was at that time that Mathieson persuaded [Prime Minister] Borden to stick in this little clause saying no province will ever have fewer MPs than it has senators. And ever since then that really did protect the fourth seat for PEI.”
That was in 1915. Over a hundred years ago. How much has changed? Well quite a bit.
In the decades that followed the House of Commons became less and less relevant.
“One of the realities of Canadian politics these days is almost no MP has very much clout,” Moore says. “The party structures are so powerful and they’re so top down that it's very very unusual for an MP to buck his own party or take a stand or vote for what he believes in.”
I think it’s funny that Moore uses the word clout. That’s the word that Jared Wesley uses too when talking about PEI’s role on the national stage. Wesley is a professor at the University of Alberta.
Because a disproportionate amount of “out-Westers” have complained to me about the amount of MPs we have, I naively reached out to him thinking he might give me a stereotypical response to back up that assumption.
Nuh-uh, was basically his reply. “I was born and raised in Manitoba where I gained an appreciation for the value of institutions that balance territorial with per capita representation,” Welsey explained when I first contacted him.
“I make this argument in my classes,” Welsey explains to Mayzil. “We can actually change institutions without changing the constitution. So if you were the PEI premier and you wanted to increase or at least retain PEIs clout, you wouldn’t go about changing the constitution. What you would look to strengthen is the organizations like the Council of the Federation where you have an equal seat. You want to meet with your premier colleagues on an equal footing twice a year. You want to be a champion of that. And [Premier] Ghiz was a huge champion of the Council of the Federation.”
So what’s the deal. Members of Parliament. The constitution. Are those only buzzwords we hear in the media to give us the trimmings of how Canada works? Where’s PEIs clout in this whole operation?
Moore explains that our four seats in parliament really doesn’t give us a strangle-hold on Canadian politics. “If PEI only had two MPs instead of four,” he says, “I think it would still be able to defend its essential interests and make its views known because its a province.
“The premiers are powerful, important people,” Moore explains.
Wesley is on the same page. “If you want to make sure PEIs voice is heard on the national stage, you don’t honestly look to preserve four seats in the house of commons in 300 and however many people there are now. What you look for is a disproportionate voice,” he says.
And what about the Constitution? So Premier Mathieson was able to persuade Borden to add a clause to it in 1915, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had it repatriated from the UK in 1985, and then the premiers met to talk about amending it in the early 90s during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.
Premier Robert Ghiz may have been a champion of the Council of the Federation, but his father Joe proved to be a master of the constitution.
‘To the surprise of the people around the table [Joe] was willing to barter a lot of those [federal MP] seats,” Wesley explains.
When the constitution was repatriated from Westminster, it’s amending formula was lost. That’s part of the reason why Premier Mathieson and Prime Minister Borden were easily able to add a clause in 1915. But in the early 1990s the Supreme Court of Canada decreed that in order to change the constitution it was going to be--legally speaking, fucking hard.
As Wesley says, Canadians now have certainty on how to change it. But the supreme court clarified that practically all provinces would need to agree to a change. Then parliament would need to agree to those changes. Then there’s a piece of federal legislation that basically offers regions a veto on said changes. The result is: good luck, son.
The Price Tag
Anyway, all this political mumbo-jumbo aside. As always, the important question is money.
The essence of the problem is that this little economically-depressed island has four seats in the house of commons and four seats in the senate. The real problem seems to be that those seats in parliament really don’t mean a whole lot. At this point they’re essentially symbolic.
Our real power lies in fact that we’re a province. It doesn’t matter that our province has a population a fraction the size of most major cities across this country. Our premier meet on an equal footing as the other premiers.
For the sake of taxpayers on PEI and across the country, let’s put the cost of our MPs and Senators under the microscope.
Each year one of our senators makes a base salary of $145k a year. Not too shabby.
If they become a chair of a committee that’s an extra $11,600. If they’re a vice-chair that’s another $5,600. Plus they get $22,000 a year for living expenses because they live 100kms outside Ottawa. And, they get $161,200 a year to maintain an office and staff.
Oh, and on top of that they get 64 flights a year between Charlottetown and Ottawa. An average flight is about $500.
Altogether the cost of a senator is just under $560k a year.
In social studies class we were told that the senate is the upper chamber. The sophisticated one--where the sovereign comes to give the speech from the throne. Or the chamber in which members complain about cold camembert cheeze on international flights. But interestingly enough, senators are legally required to be paid $25k less a year than MPs.
If we look at the price of an average backbencher MP --including all the perks a senator gets and more, they make about $591k a year. Actually that number is from 2012. So they may make more than that now. Plus a raise increase, plus inflation and other losses, it’s safe to round that number up to $600k a year..
What if us islanders decide that we don’t these extra seats in parliament any more because they’re really not beneficial to our station in life. And honestly they’re just too expensive to be symbolic. Well;
We aren’t just giving these seats away on a rental agreement or on a year by year basis. It’s forever. No one knows what the future holds. So in the case that things start looking up for PEI, or we want those voting rights in parliament back, we need to realize that good bye is in fact good bye.
If we give up two seats--one in the house of commons and the other in the senate for the next hundred years, that would be 116 million buckeroos. Don’t forget inflation. Over the last 100 years it rose 1,532%. We can assume that it will rise just as much or more in the next 100 years.
That brings us up to $1.78 billion dollars for one MP and one senate seat for a hundred years.
Of course, if we really want to be pragmatic and divert money back into the Island treasury we could cut out two MP and two senate seats. That would be a total of $3.55 billion dollars.
What could we do with that money? Well considering that PEIs debt now stands at about $2 billion we could get ourselves out of the hole. Back in the black. For the first time since we joined Canada.
Just having those levels of debt paid off would save the province oodles in interest payments.
In case you're not up to date on the current interest charges on the Islands debt for 2017 its $126 million dollars. Split between 145,000 people (including babies and old people) that’s about $869 dollars a year in interest charges each.
Lets not keep pretending that PEI's senate and commons seats in Ottawa are our greatest advantage at the federal level. They're mostly symbolic and have been for a long time. But what they are are bargaining chips to help replenish our coffers.
So #sellthatchair Mr. Premier. Then put that money towards paying off our debt.
What can be done?
If you think this story offers plausible solutions to help the Island, then take five minutes and send a quick email to the premiers office or to your local M.L.A, and attach this article. Or tag them on social media with the hashtag #sellthatchair. Or just be really cool and share it on your own.