Volume 9, Number 1 August 10, 2001

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Courtney’s political studies range from ridings to reforms

By Elizabeth Frogley
SPARK Writer

Prof. John Courtney

Contrary to popular belief, politicians do sometimes ignore their own best interests and do what’s best for their constituents, says University of Saskatchewan political scientist John Courtney.

"We’re often very critical of politicians for acting on their own behalf, but there are important issues on which they act in the larger public interest even though it goes against their own political interests," Courtney says.

An excellent example of politicians serving the public good is found in the creation of independent electoral boundary commissions, which Courtney discusses in his new book Commissioned Ridings: Designing Canada’s Electoral Districts. The book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, has been described by one reviewer as "the definitive work on how electoral boundaries are drawn in Canada."

Prior to the 1950s, politicians could design their ridings to ensure that they would be re-elected. They could move areas that voted against them out of their ridings, or divide areas that supported their party into more, smaller ridings. The process is called gerrymandering, after Massachusetts governor Eldridge Gerry, who pioneered the technique in the early 19th century.

Despite the unfairness of gerrymandering in Canada, there was no public pressure to give control of determining electoral boundaries to independent boundary commissions. The decision to do so was made solely by politicians who wanted a more just electoral system.

Manitoba was the first province to introduce boundary commissions in the mid-1950s. The federal government introduced boundary commissions a decade later, and Quebec shortly thereafter. Eventually, all provinces adopted some form or another of independent boundary commissions.

Independent boundary commissions have the responsibility of balancing the interests of sparsely populated rural areas with those of urban centres, and ensuring that Canada’s regional and ethnic diversities are adequately represented by electoral districts.

As well as studying the issue, Courtney has first-hand experience with boundary commissions. He served on the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Saskatchewan in 1987.

He points out that institutional transformation, like the adoption of independent boundary commissions or of medicare, has historically begun at the provincial level and spread to other provinces and the federal government.

"Federalism offers an opportunity to learn from one another. It’s a test tube which allows us to look at each other and become copycats," Courtney says.

Courtney’s book, the research for which was carried out under a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) grant, is about the spread of ideas and policies concerning governance across Canada. The book was written between 1998 and 2000 when Courtney held a Killam Research Fellowship.

But political reforms have not always caught on. Obstacles to change are of great interest to Courtney.

He was recently awarded a SSHRC grant (2000-2003) to study reform of the electoral system, and the reasons why it does or does not take place in various jurisdictions.

"There have to be reasons why we don’t change political institutions," he says. Though criticisms of the electoral system are as old as the electoral system itself, Canada’s voting system has not really changed since Confederation. Courtney hopes to discover the variables that need to be in place for electoral reform to take effect.

Part of his research will involve studying the example of New Zealand, which recently reformed its electoral system. New Zealand’s previous system was similar to Canada’s and faced similar criticisms.

Courtney plans to do part of his research in New Zealand to study how and why the system was changed there and how successful these changes have been.

One thing Courtney is certain about is that electoral reform is not imminent in Canada.

"Chrétien is not an institutional reformer," he says. "He does not want to rock the boat."


For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca


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