Some votes are more equal than others

On July 8, the Liberals tabled a discussion paper entitled Strengthening New Brunswick’s Democracy and announced they wanted the Legislature to establish a Select Committee on Democratic Reform. The irony was delicious. Since Christmas, the seat of our democracy had barely had the chance to warm up. Inexplicably, our sitting days were severely cut back and important financial oversight committees had not been permitted to meet. Against this democratic deficit, the members of the Legislature were being asked to form a Select Committee to consult the public on how to improve our democracy.

The Official Opposition refused to play ball and would not provide committee members. I said I would be a member of the committee, as I believe electoral reform is essential to making progress in New Brunswick. However, if the Tories would not join, there was no point in me participating in a Select Committee that was not representative of our provincial parliament.

For reasons only know to the Liberal’s back room, the motion to establish the Select Committee on Democratic Reform was botched. I had agreed to second the motion, but the Liberals waited until the very last day of the sitting before the summer break to table it in the House. Without prior notice of the motion, the rules required all parties in the House to give permission for it to be considered. The Tories said no. We have a discussion paper on democratic reform on which to consult New Brunswickers, but no Legislative committee to do so.

This fiasco is symptomatic of what’s wrong with the seat of our democracy. For years, Liberals and Tory governments have treated the Legislature as a mere formality to implementing their agendas, rather than the Legislative branch of government. In this case, the Liberals had committed in their election platform to “investigate means to improve participation in democracy, such as preferential ballots and on-line voting.” However, there was no prior discussion about how to investigate this with the opposition parties. Like so much else, it was sprung on the Legislature. Here are the terms of reference, like ‘em or lump ‘em, government holds the majority of seats in the Legislature.

There-in lies the problem. We have multiple parties, but functionally we have a two party parliament with the current first-past-the-post system. Twenty-five percent of New Brunswick voters cast ballots for parties other than the Liberals and Tories, but the only seat not held by those parties is mine. The bulk of the votes cast for other parties just went into the garbage can. The voices of those voters are not represented in our assembly of representatives. While we are all supposed to be equal before the law, our votes are not. This fundamental unfairness could be rectified by replacing the first-past-the-post system with one based on proportional representation. We have been down this road before.

Bernard Lord established a Commission on Legislative Democracy in 2004 to examine how to strengthen our democracy. It recommended a mixed-member proportional system. It also made recommendations on how to enhance the role of MLAs and the Legislature, and how to give New Brunswickers a stronger voice in the decisions of government and the Legislature. Sadly, most of the Commission’s recommendations were never implemented, though they are discussed in detail in political scientist Willian Cross’s 2007 book entitled, Democratic Reform in New Brunswick.

We have an assembly of representatives that does not represent the views of large numbers of New Brunswickers. A system of proportional representation where the percentage vote a party receives is reflected in the number of seats it holds in that assembly would be one step toward returning democracy to the seat of our democracy – the Legislative Assembly.

Majority government would become less common, forcing parties to collaborate with each other in the Legislature. In the current system, the intensity of partisanship is a barrier to the kind of collaboration New Brunswickers want. There would be a greater diversity of parties in the House, more accurately reflecting the choices of the electorate. This would end the tyranny of the two-party system, where to form government you just have to bide your time until voters turf the other guys out and it’s your turn to run things again.

We need a system of proportional representation to strengthen our democracy. Without it, our province will continue to drift aimlessly, blown this way and that way as power shifts from Liberals to Tories, and back again.