For a while it looked like Nova Scotians were in for a rousing public debate on the endangered state of our democratic institutions. The lengthy sidelining of the legislature since the outbreak of the pandemic was bringing to a head years of consternation about the authoritarian tendencies of the Liberal government led by Stephen McNeil.
But now McNeil is gone, and seems to have taken with him much of the angst about Nova Scotia’s fragile democracy. The media have picked up a different vibe coming from the new Premier, notwithstanding that his leadership campaign was free of any overt criticism of McNeil’s hard-nosed ways.
Iain Rankin allows reporters to attend COVID-19 briefings in person, Yarmouth ferry management fees are released (by court order, mind you), and a long suppressed report on ambulance service finally sees the light of day. Driving home the message that the crisis has passed, the throne speech to open the first session of the legislature in 364 days noted that “Nova Scotia is considered the cradle of Canadian democracy,” without acknowledging the baby’s severe malnourishment.
Disappointing throne speech aside, the state of our democracy is too important a matter to be dismissed as old news. McNeil may be on his way out, but the defects in the system that enabled him remain.
As I’ve argued before, recent events are the culmination of many years of erosion of democratic institutions, with power and the opportunity for participatory democracy moving from the local to the provincial level. But as more and more power has devolved upward, the capacity to hold the provincial government to account has diminished. The legislature sits fewer days than it used to, the budget review process has become more hurried and legislative committees have lost clout.
The dubious distinction of being the only legislature in Canada not to sit during the pandemic turned the spotlight on something that has been going on almost since the Liberals took office. The number of days the legislature sits has varied over the years, but has generally averaged 60 days a year since the 1970s. Under the NDP, the house sat an average of 63 days a year between 2009-2013. Under McNeil’s Liberals the average from 2014 to 2019 was 46 days and the 13 sitting days in 2020 will bring the average down further.
The shorter sessions mean the government has to face fewer question periods while denying opposition parties a chance in the spotlight. It has also meant scrutiny of public spending is being compressed into a shorter time frame. The 2020 budget was pushed through in the shortest possible time allowed under the rules. Examination of the $11 billion budget introduced on February 25 was done and dusted by March 10. McNeil’s departure may provide a few sunny days, but the problem is systemic and its solution will require more than a friendlier face at the top.
As the slights against democratic accountability mounted over the last couple of years, members of the opposition and the media have proposed a range of remedies. One thing they both agree on is the need for stronger access to information legislation. That would include giving the Information and Privacy Commissioner order-making power. It’s something McNeil promised when he was opposition leader but backtracked on as Premier.
There have been a number of opposition bills aimed at making the legislature and its committees more effective checks on government power. Those bills died when the legislature was prorogued last December, but they provide a cross-section of ideas on how to improve democratic accountability.
An NDP bill introduced in March 2020 would significantly expand the number of sitting days and mandate publication of a calendar of sitting days, the practice in Ottawa. The bill would also limit “legislation by exhaustion” – the all-night sittings to push through controversial legislation much favored by McNeil’s Liberals.
The Conservatives want all committee meetings to be televised, and both opposition parties want to restore the Public Accounts Committee’s ability to address any topic it chooses, rather than continue the 2018 Liberal-imposed restriction to reports from the Auditor-General.
An NDP bill would make the Law Amendments Committee more people friendly. Allowing for public input in Law Amendments after a bill gets second reading is a unique and positive feature, befitting a “cradle of democracy.” But too often governments have limited public participation by rushing controversial bills to the committee before the public knows what’s happening and then limiting the time for presentations. The NDP proposed a notice period of three business days before the committee deals with a bill and the right to present by telephone or video.
Both opposition parties have also taken runs at making the new centralized health and education bureaucracies more accountable. The Conservatives brought in the Health Authority Transparency Act. It would have the Nova Scotia Health Authority, with a budget of $1.89 billion this year, report all expenditures in excess of $25,000, as governments departments do. A private member’s bill from the NDP would require the Provincial Advisory Council on Education (the weak substitute for elected school boards) to hold at least two open meetings a year to hear from the public.
If enacted, these various proposals would make government more open and transparent. But they all smack of inside baseball, something that concerns only politicians and political nerds. Given the unhealthy combination of creeping despotism and public indifference something bolder is required.
Time for PR
Proportional representation, a dramatic way of shaking up the system, has been talked about for years, mostly by third parties. After they were reduced to that status in the 2011 election even the federal Liberals embraced replacing First Past the Post (FPTP) with some form of proportional representation. As it turned out, the idea immediately lost its appeal to Trudeau’s gang after 39.5 per cent of the vote gave them a 30-seat majority in the 2015 election.
Something similar happened with the Nova Scotia NDP. PR had been part of the party’s platform for years but was gone by the time they formed a majority government with 45.2 per cent of the vote in 2009. It was not revived while the party was in power but the NDP has backed into the issue again with Bill 147. The private member’s bill introduced in 2019 called for a democratic renewal commission to prepare a report on implementing mixed-member proportional representation (MMPR).
Simply put, proportional representation means the percentage of seats a party has in the legislature would better reflect the percentage of people who voted for that party. PR encourages power sharing among parties and because every vote counts, PR boosts voter turnout.
The Nova Scotia election of 2017, followed by almost four years of increasingly high-handed government, should be argument enough for giving proportional representation serious consideration.
In that election voter turnout hit an all-time low of 53.4 per cent, continuing a steady descent that began in 1988 when turnout was 75.8 per cent. The Liberals received 39.6 per cent of votes cast. That translates into a little over one in five eligible voters – 20.9 per cent – supporting the Liberals. Yet, thanks to less than 400 votes in four close districts the Liberals were able to form a majority government.
In 2006 the Rodney MacDonald-led Conservatives also finished on top with 39.6 per cent of the vote – same as the McNeil Liberals – but attracted a significantly larger share of the eligible vote, 23.6 per cent to the 2017 Liberal share of 20.9. But because of the vagaries of first past the post, MacDonald’s Conservatives won only 25 seats and formed a minority government, forced to work with other parties to survive. Lucking-in with 27 seats on fewer votes in 2017, McNeil ruled as if he had received an overwhelming mandate.
In the aftermath of the record low turnout in 2017 even McNeil acknowledged there was a problem. “There needs to be a hard look at what can we do to help improve participation,” he told Global News. But given the opportunity to take a hard look, his government took a pass.
Following a court decision invalidating the electoral boundaries established in 2012 two separate commissions held meetings around the province in 2017 and 2018. But their mandate was limited to figuring out how to provide for “effective representation” in the House of Assembly of Acadian and African Nova Scotians, within the existing FPTP system. The end result of the 30-month process was legislation in November 2019. Four more electoral districts, to be filled at the next election, were added. The principle of voter equality, the idea that each vote should be of equivalent value, was bent out of shape in the process, leaving some districts with more than twice the voting power of some others.
Ironically, after all that work on effective representation for Acadian and African Nova Scotians, it was only a matter of months before the prolonged shutdown of the House of Assembly and its committees made a mockery of the notion of the legislature as a vehicle of effective representation for anyone.
Look to New Zealand
Getting public buy-in for proportional representation has proven difficult. Provinces that have tried to change it have encountered public resistance. Ontario, B.C. and P.E.I have all followed up consultations with referenda, but each time voters opted for the status quo. And the momentum for change that should come from the negative experience of the last four years in Nova Scotia may begin to wane with the new Premier’s more cordial tone.
That suggests a need to go positive. Rather than dwelling on the sins of the past, focus on the benefits of a reformed system. A good place to look for inspiration is New Zealand, a country with which we have something in common. Indeed, the new Premier has cited with approval New Zealand’s inclusion of citizen well-being and environmental sustainability in its budgeting process. Iain Rankin should also look to that country’s democratic institutions.
New Zealand went to mixed-member proportional representation in 1996. The country’s 120-seat legislature has 72 members elected by district, and 48 from party lists. For Nova Scotia, a roughly similar ratio would provide for 33 members from districts, elected through FPTP, and 22 from party lists. New Zealand’s rules provide that to secure a seat in parliament a party must win an electoral district or at least five per cent of the overall vote. A party cracking the five-per-cent threshold appoints to parliament one or more members from its list.
In the theoretical 33-22 Nova Scotia case, the New Birthday Party could be shut out in all 33 electoral districts but by winning five per cent of the vote would be entitled to appoint one candidate off its list to sit in the legislature. So the list makes it easier for new parties to appear on the scene and allows all parties to promote diversity in its parliamentary delegation without diverting too far from the principle of voter equality. And parties could use their lists to designate MLAs to focus on large, sparsely populated districts like Guysborough or Victoria, neutralizing another argument that has been advanced to justify voter inequality.
The most recent election in New Zealand was a shining example of the advantages of mixed-member PR. Some 82 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls last October to elect a Labour government headed by the widely admired Jacinda Ardern, one of 58 women elected. It was a signal day for diversity, as CNN reported:
“As two older, White, male candidates fought for supremacy in the United States election, New Zealand was offering its electorate a more progressive choice: two White women. But in New Zealand, that was just the start. When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was reelected in an a landslide last month, she brought with her a diverse cast of politicians that make up what is — by some measures — the most inclusive parliament in the world.
Almost half of New Zealand’s newly sworn-in Parliament are women and 11% are LGBTQ. Both New Zealand’s Indigenous Māori and people with Pacific Island heritage are represented at a slightly higher rate than in the general population.
Politicians from diverse backgrounds aren’t just making up numbers in Parliament — they’re in key positions of power.
Eight of Ardern’s 20-strong cabinet … are also women, and a quarter are Māori. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson will be the first openly gay politician to hold that role in New Zealand. And foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta, who wears a moko kauae or traditional Māori face tattoo, is the first Indigenous woman in New Zealand’s history to represent the country in that position.
“It looks like New Zealand looks,” said Jennifer Curtin, a professor of politics and director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland, of the country’s government. “We’re not male, pale and stale anymore.”
Changing FPTP will not be easy. The Liberals and Conservatives, who usually form governments in this country, have benefitted from the status quo. Even the third parties have failed to use their occasional times in power to make the change. It may be left to the public to demand change. In that regard, the recent record of acquiescence to the steady erosion of democratic accountability does not offer a lot of hope.
However, there is the odd green shoot. Despite the pandemic and a one-sided mayoralty race, the municipal elections last October showed signs of renewed interest in politics. In 2016 in Halifax, four out of 16 seats were filled by acclamation and turnout was around 30 per cent. In 2020 there was only one acclamation, turnout rose to almost 40 per cent and the number of women on council went from two to eight. In Cape Breton Regional Municipality a hotly contested race for mayor produced a 63 per cent turnout and a win for Amanda McDougall over the “male and pale” two-term incumbent. So who knows, maybe change is in the air.
 For example, in the Acadian district of Argyle, there are 6,461 electors to one MLA while in Waverley-Fall River-Beaverbank there are 16,545 electors to one MLA. But Queen’s, not a district with significant Acadian or African Nova Scotian population, also has disproportionate voting power with 8,531 electors to one MLA.