For the sake of argument

The farmer has too much voting power

M. S. DONNELLY SAYS June 20 1959
For the sake of argument

The farmer has too much voting power

M. S. DONNELLY SAYS June 20 1959

The farmer has too much voting power

For the sake of argument


Majority rule, representation by population, and one man, one vote, are clichés in Canada. Everyone knows, or thinks he knows, that these principles are imbedded in our system of government. We should take another look at the

system of representation.

In the past half century Canada has changed from an agrarian rural country to an industrial and predominantly urban nation. In 1956 Canada was sixty-eight percent urban and thirty-two percent rural, which represents, almost exactly, a complete inversion of the figures that applied after the census of 1901. Nothing like a corresponding change has occurred in the basis of representation for our provincial legislaturesor for the House of Commons at Ottawa. Sixty percent of the members presently sitting in the capital represent rural areas. In a federal election one rural vote is worth, on the average, twice as much as an urban one and in some areas it may be worth ten times as much. The situation in the provincial legislatures is either identical or worse. For example, metropolitan Montreal has over a third of the population of the province, but approximately one seventh of the seats in the legislature. Vancouver, with a population nearly half that of British Columbia, has about twenty-five percent of the seats. Similar ratios can be found in almost every province.

Springboard for demagogues?

How did we get this way and what are the consequences of having representation on this basis? The short answer to the first question is that our country was basically rural in the beginning, and inertia, the alleged difficulty of representing a large rural area, plus the myths of agrarian stability and rural superiority in virtue, have maintained our representative


system much as it began. The answer to the second is that not only does rural over-representation violate the principles of representaif

tion by population, but it may, and if our history is any guide, proba1

bly will, serve as a buttress for re§

action and a springboard for dema;

gogues. ¡I

In monetary terms, a powerful farm lobby has already secured a if mass of expensive legislation to bonus and protect farmers, the bill for which is paid largely by urban wage earners through income tax.

This also results in higher food costs for the same wage earner |

and, in some provinces he may if

even be told, by law, that he may substitute margarine for butter only if its color is acceptable to fj

the dairy farmer.

The idea that an agrarian econfj

omy is best for stable democratic if

government has been around a fj

long time. Political thinkers, ora¡I

tors, statesmen and poets have |if

added to the myth over the cenj

turies. Three hundred years before if Christ, Aristotle wrote: "The best if;

material for democracy is an agricultural community; there is no fj

difficulty in forming a democracy f

where the mass of the people live fj by agriculture or the tending of cattle." Both Socrates and Cicero if

believed that agriculture was the "mother and nurse of all the other arts.”

Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest advocates of the doctrine in North America. He argued that the ruling class must be drawn from a land - owning aristocracy and the majority of those who had the franchise should be. at least, small landholders. American agri|§ culturalists call him the father of the family farm. Jefferson wrote at if; length on the alleged connection between wisdom, virtue and farm%

ing: "Cultivators of the earth,” he f

said, "are the most valuable citi;i

zens. They are the most indepen§f

dent, the continued on page 52 if


Continued from page 8

most virtuous and they arc tied to the country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds . . . the mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body."

Canadian politicians, particularly at the time of Confederation, stressed the worth of the man who owned his own plot of land but, more canny than Jefferson, did not condemn the sin of the cities. Farm leaders have persistently done both. In 1910, when farmers from

all over Canada marched on Ottawa, the brief they presented to Laurier said, in part: “Believing that the greatest misfortune which can befall any country is to have its people huddled together in the great centres of population and realizing also that in view of the constant movement of our people away from the farms, the greatest problem which presents itself to the Canadian people today is the problem of retaining our people on the soil, we come doubly assured of the justice of our position,"

J. L. Brown, president of the United Farmers of Manitoba in the 1920s saw. as did many of those who preceded and followed him in office, a direct and divinely established connection between farming, the virtuous life and stable but progressive democratic government. Other farm leaders used to talk, in a Utopian way, about a Christian commonwealth that would transcend national boundaries and be ruled by farmers.

Suggestions of this kind are not heard these days as the agricultural organiza-

tions are much too busy with more practical questions such as deficiency payments or price supports. Nevertheless, our democratic machinery still operates as if there was a real relationship between stable government and rural life based on individual ownership of land.

This proposition cannot be supported by either European or Canadian experience — if anything, the converse is true. The rise of mass democracy in nineteenth century Britain corresponds rather closely to the rise of a great industrial and urban nation — a nation which had already adopted a policy through the enclosure movements which led to the creation of a large landless class. The emphasis since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 has not been on rural democracy or the family farm, but on the production of food, as cheaply and efficiently as possible, for the factory worker. This is in marked contrast to the pattern that has developed in France since the revolution in 1789. Many of the documents associated with the revolution

specify the right to own land as one of the “natural, sacred and unalienable rights of man.” Many of those who had been serfs before the Revolution became small land-holders after it and, by and large, their descendants still hold it. A comparison between democratic government in France and Britain does not indicate that its stability is enhanced by large numbers of people owning small parcels of land or disturbed by the existence of a large landless class.

Canadian experience indicates that rural areas, far from being the bed rock of our parliamentary system, have all too often been the breeding ground of crackpot theories of government or the supporters of reactionary regimes. Take three examples: the Progressive party of the 1920s, the farmer government which held office until recently in the province of Manitoba, and the Duplessis regime that has been in power in the province of Quebec since 1944 and which owes its power largely to rural voters.

The Progressive party of the 1920s was divided into two wings — the radical wing led by H. W. Wood of Alberta and J. J. Morrison of Ontario and the more conservative group led, for a time, by T. A. Crerar. The ideas that Wood and Morrison attempted to put into practice were formulated by William Irvine and expounded in his book. The Farmer in Politics. This book is one of the most remarkable in Canadian political history. It seems to represent an attempt to apply the evolutionary theory of Darwin together with some good old-time religion and a dash of Karl Marx’s doctrine of class struggle to the British parliamentary system. The nub of the idea was that the traditional democratic process must be given up entirely to be replaced by representation from organized interest groups, who would elect members to parliament in proportion to the number in each group.

The system was seen as inevitable: a short quotation from Irvine will illustrate: "The evolutionary principle recognizes a movement from the indefinite to the definite and from the simple to the complex. We begin with the worlds in whirling orbs of fire, and end with the human faculties as expressed in the highest art . . . This principle operates in the political realm just as it does in the physical, and that man is blind who cannot see it ... we are moving toward a more complex form of government . . . away from the indefinite jelly formation of mass opinion, to the definite solidified opinion of organized groups." The fact that large numbers of people could swallow such gobbledygook as this makes understandable the subsequent election of Aberhart as premier of Alberta in 1935 with his hair-brained schemes for monetary Social Credit reform.

Experience in Manitoba with an administration dominated by sons of the soil is instructive. In 1922 the province elected an avowedly farmer government and. until recently, the government was run on principles or ideas that are typically rural. Some of these characteristics were self - righteousness, naïveté, oversimplification of issues and of the nature of government's responsibility, an exaggerated emphasis on the virtues of rigorous economy in all circumstances and a lamentable lack of understanding of the political process and of the parliamentary system. There was, of course, a certain cross - pollenization between these ideas and attitudes. The views of the farmers on the usefulness and functions of political parties will illustrate many of these characteristics and their attitude toward education the rest.

John Bracken, who became Premier

in 1922, and the group that supported him, believed that political parties were at best an unnecessary expense and at their worst the breeding ground of dissension and corruption. All that was needed for provincial government, they maintained, was a small group of men of good will gathered together in the legislature to do what was best. This was assumed to be self-evident and consisted of the laissez-faire minimum carried out as cheaply as possible. An opposition, and.hence debate, about policy was regarded as a waste of time. Throughout his career Bracken worked for coalition and non - partisan government on the grounds that it would be more efficient and cheaper. In 1941 his ideas were accepted and during the ensuing decade the province was governed by a nonpartisan group. ( Bracken, with remarkable perversity, then went off to lead the national Conservative party after insisting that the word Progressive be prefixed to their name.) Vital political parties ceased to exist in Manitoba and so did vital policies. Both were revived a few years ago by Duff Roblin, a notably urban and urbane type.

The starving horse

Policies on education, both school and university illustrated the failure of the farmer administration and amounted to nothing short of a social tragedy. By 1950 Manitoba had the lowest per capita expenditures on education in Canada and the highest per capita reserves in the treasury. The province very nearly achieved the position of the farmer who, having trained his horse to get along without eating, found that the ungrateful beast dropped dead. The policy was to spend as little as possible and to offer no leadership. For example, on the question of the larger school unit, the stand of the non-partisan administration was that the demand for it must come from the grass roots — local school districts must organize of their own motion and petition for government action. As might be expected, very few did. Last February the Roblin minority government initiated a province-wide referendum on the subject, offered financial incentives for the adoption of the larger units and generally gave the leadership that is expected of a political party with the result that the province voted overwhelmingly in favor of the consolidated districts.

The behavior of rural voters in the province of Quebec indicates that democrary and good government would not suffer if their representation were reduced to its proper level. Consider the following facts and allegations. In the election of June, 1956, the Union Nationale Party led by Mr. Duplessis won seventyfour seats and the opposition nineteen. Of that nineteen, thirteen were from essentially urban areas and seven of these were from the city of Montreal.

There is considerable evidence that the rather extreme brand of French - Canadian nationalism preached by Duplessis and other members of his government meets the best response in rural areas. Indeed, some of the issues on which the Premier fights the federal government seem carefully selected so as to do the rural areas no specific harm while at the same time make him seem a great champion of provincial autonomy. His refusal to let the universities take federal grants given without strings and dispensed through the National Conference of Canadian Universities is one such instance. Conversely, refusal to join the Trans-Canada Highway agreements probably persists because the presence of the

federal auditors would nullify patronage.

Finally, no provincial government has such a bad record in civil liberties. The Padlock Law was enforced for twenty years — until the Supreme Court threw it out. Mr. Duplessis was also recently sentenced to pay $33.123 personal damages to Frank Roncarelli because, as attorney-general, he had discriminated against Roncarelli to punish him for giving bail to Jehovah's Witnesses, a sect that the Premier was trying to wipe out.

The three examples cited prove that existing rural over-representation in both the provinces and the House of Commons cannot be justified in the name of good or stable government. Put negatively it is safe to say that rural voters have not displayed greater electoral wisdom than their city fellows. This being the case are there any other reasons to justify the present state of affairs? One, commonly cited and rarely examined, is that if rural areas were made large enough to contain as many voters as the average urban constituency they would be too large to represent. It is argued that the candidates would not be able to get to know their constituents or to conduct an election campaign properly. There is obviously something in this argument; the federal riding of Toronto - Spadina has a population of nearly ninety thousand and over fifty thousand registered voters. A constituency containing a similar number of voters in northern Canada would take in at least everything north of the fifty-fifth parallel. Applied to more typical rural areas, the argument loses most of its force.

In the first place, modern means of travel make larger constituencies more feasible. There is no reason to draw' boundaries as if candidates went about on horseback. Means of communicating ideas have, of course, changed equally. Radio networks now cover the entire population. For the past twenty years those who wished to turn on their sets could hear the candidates. Soon the great majority will be able to see them on TV. Is a handshake really necessary?

In what sense can the interests of an artificial geographical area, such as most ridings are and must remain, be represented? A half century ago, the local member was expected to see that the party faithful were rewarded — that soand-so got to tend the lighthouse or keep the post office. In the federal field even the petty patronage is now gone, in many of the provinces it is on its way out, in the others it should be. Moreover, what we need are members who can contribute to and interpret majority will as it applies to national or provincial matters. Such questions as further development of the welfare state or educational policy have little distinctively local or constituency application.

Reform in our representative system is long overdue. One way to increase urban representation would be simply by increasing the number of members in each House. As it is now, each member has a desk and chair on the floor of the House. Many of the back-benchers could well sit in a special gallery or jostle for a seat on a bench if a dramatic debate was in progress or anticipated. The first thing that needs to be done is to get the drawing of constituency boundaries out of the hands of the politicians. The BNA act stipulates that the area of each federal constituency must be confirmed or redrawn after each decennial census. It is useless to expect a parliamentary committee, the majority of which will be rural members, to make any substantial change. Britain and Australia entrust this work to a boundaries commission and we should do the same. ★