Representation by population or by geography?

Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission is recommending the creation of a new Sylvan Lake constituency to be cobbled together from parts of Lacombe-Ponoka, Innisfail-Sylvan Lake and Rocky Mountain House. It would be a new electoral division with no incumbent MLA, no political history and no baggage.

By George Brown, editor

Rimbey and district residents will likely be represented by a new MLA after the next provincial election — without the effort to vote out MLA Ray Prins.

Alberta’s Electoral Boundaries Commission is recommending the creation of a new Sylvan Lake constituency to be cobbled together from parts of Lacombe-Ponoka, Innisfail-Sylvan Lake and Rocky Mountain House. It would be a new electoral division with no incumbent MLA, no political history and no baggage. In any place but rural Alberta, this would be a clean slate for new political constituency associations.

The power base will be Sylvan Lake, with more than four times Rimbey’s population. Whatever relationship our neighbours west of Highway 2 and their town and county councillors, school board trustees, hospital unions, chamber of commerce and agricultural society have established with Prins and the Lacombe-Ponoka Progressive Conservative party association will be ancient history soon. Constituencies are fluid, living entities that expand and contract with the changing population, community interests, common social and economic issues and the political needs of its residents. This latest change reflects Sylvan Lake’s growth and its need to assert itself in the region — and probably some desire on the part of the current MLA to reduce the time he spends on matters west of The Fifth.

The commission held a number of public hearings across Alberta to find out Albertans’ thoughts on how they should be represented in the legislature. You can view the complete report and proposed electoral division maps on the commission’s website at www.altaebc.ab.ca

One issue the commission did not address was the size of the Alberta legislature itself; that integral component of a true electoral boundaries review was predetermined by the Stelmach government. The commission was ordered to redesign the provincial electoral map by adding four new constituencies, for a total of 87 seats, and to maintain a citizen’s right to effective representation — whatever that is. This government is quite comfortable with its disproportionate support from rural Alberta. The next commission, likely in 2018, by necessity will be charged with addressing the changing rural/urban landscape.

The current electoral boundaries commission should have been told to redesign the political map with an eye to reducing the number of constituencies to 60 from the current 83. Instead of representing 41,000 Albertans, give or take, MLAs would speak for about 60,000 constituents. Fewer MLAs would help to re-establish the importance and responsibility of being a member; there are a lot of nobodies taking up space in Edmonton and now the government wants four more.

Yes, some rural MLAs represent disproportionately large constituencies and have to deal with two or three town councils, two or three county councils and school boards, chambers of commerce and agricultural societies. Twenty years ago, Ralph Klein amalgamated school boards and hospital boards and drastically reduced the number of boards MLAs have to meet with. The one area of Albertans’ governance he didn’t reduce was the legislature.

It’s not that having fewer MLAs would save money and eliminate the deficit but it would hold those privileged elected few to a higher standard, and promote greater accountability and transparency. A smaller legislature could be part of larger electoral reforms that would attract Alberta’s best and brightest political minds, encourage more meaningful debate on the floor of the legislature, and strengthen the committee system.

Give MLAs with huge rural districts more support staff to serve their constituencies. Larger districts with satellite offices and members connected to voters by the Internet should offset concerns about voters being isolated and removed from communication with their reps. This government has made Alberta one of the best connected provinces or states in North America. Surely that technology could be employed to communicate with residents — even to hold remote town hall meetings.

What are our expectations for MLAs? Our lives are certainly enriched by the programs and projects a caring and responsive provincial government provides to its citizens but are we better off for having the MLA driving all over hell’s half-acre to get his mug in a ribbon-cutting photo?

When was the last time you drove to Lacombe to give the MLA a piece of your mind or to enjoy a piece of fruitcake at Christmas?

Or did you pick up the phone of drop him an e-mail? Did you feel any less a citizen?