Monday, March 20, 2017

Unconstitutional Electoral Boundaries Impact Us All

Premier Stephen McNeil’s statement that he has no problem calling an election using unconstitutional riding boundaries, combined with Minister Michel Samson’s stance that he can negotiate a boundary resolution in secret, with only one impacted party, is troubling. All Nova Scotians are impacted by the current unconstitutional electoral boundaries. We all have a stake. We should all care regardless of political affiliation. While the recent court challenge to the the province’s electoral boundaries was launched by only one stakeholder, the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse (FANE), representing many Acadians, the ruling that the current riding boundaries are in fact unconstitutional impacts every riding and every voter.

The importance to the province’s Acadian community cannot be understated. As the representative of a riding with a large Acadian community, I’ve heard frequently since the setting of the last boundaries, and since the court ruling, about the importance of fixing the riding boundaries before another election is called. But this is not just about the Acadian communities in our province. This is about all Nova Scotians. You only need to look to Shelburne or Cape Breton, or other places that saw communities of interest torn apart, to see how the last boundary process, and the elimination of protected ridings, had a cascading impact on boundary lines of every riding in the province.

In 2011 I was a member of the Select Committee to Establish an Electoral Boundary Commission. After holding meetings across the province, our committee issued a report outlining what criteria the commission following us should consider in drawing the actual electoral boundaries. The majority NDP submitted a report which recommended the elimination of protected Acadian and African Nova Scotian ridings. The committee report included a minority opinion. Submitted by Liberal and PC members on the Committee (including me and Michel Samson), it referenced Supreme Court rulings to make the case that eliminating the consideration of protected ridings would be unconstitutional. We believed any election held using boundaries created without due consideration of the Charter of Rights risked being contestable. That argument is now stronger given the recent court ruling.

The subsequent Commission, set up to implement our Committee’s recommendations, also heard from Nova Scotians, and it also recommended keeping the protected ridings. They issued their own independent analysis in much the same way as the arbitrator looking at amalgamating health unions would do to the Liberal government a few years later. The boundary commission was overruled by the governing NDP. The protected ridings were eliminated.

It’s one thing to go into an election debating whether electoral boundaries are unconstitutional. That happened in 2013. The NDP government of the day insisted they were constitutional. The opposition Liberals and PCs argued they were not. The court has now decided the opposition was right, in keeping with the previous Supreme Court ruling that the establishment of electoral boundaries are subject to Section 3 of the Charter of Rights in protecting linguistic and cultural minorities.

Every riding in the province is impacted by the need to correct the electoral boundaries. Riding boundaries are established through multi-party committees and non-partisan commissions, not in backrooms through secret negotiations. A single political party negotiating in secret to try and address their own political desires of setting an election date should not come before Canada’s Constitution and our Charter of Rights. It is unethical for Minister Samson and the Liberal government to be arranging options behind closed doors without the input of the legislature and the opportunity for comment by all Nova Scotians. It is unconscionable for Premier McNeil to even consider calling a general election before the province’s riding boundaries are redistributed and corrected. 

There is sufficient time to fix the electoral boundaries well before the end of the government’s electoral mandate. Time is not an issue, except for the political calculations of the Premier’s office and his campaign staff. All Nova Scotians, and the Members of the Legislature, deserve to be part of the discussion and the electoral boundaries must be redistributed in accordance with the court ruling before any election. To do otherwise is indefensible.