Most of us may not know it, but when it comes to democracy Nova Scotians have been pioneers. Nova Scotia was the first province in present-day Canada to elect a representative government (in 1758). We were also the first in the entire overseas Commonwealth to herald responsible government (in 1848). Both of these firsts were not only groundbreaking steps for a new colony at the time, but giant leaps forward for democracy amongst nations. These days, however, our democratic expectations seem to be left grounded, far from the lofty aspirations of our forebears.
Earlier this year the Nova Scotia Electoral Boundaries Commission was tasked with the job of redrawing Nova Scotia’s 52 provincial electoral districts. They were required to ensure a relatively equal population of eligible voters in each district – within 25 percent of the average – while maintaining effective representation of the province’s minority groups. Limited by these two seemingly incompatible principles, controversy erupted almost from the get-go.
With the release of the Commission’s final report this week, no satisfactory solution has yet been found. In applying the mandatory 25 percent rule, the Commission was forced to sacrifice some smaller districts with unique constituencies, making it a lot more difficult for minorities such as Acadian and African Nova Scotians to win seats and gain representation in the House of Assembly.
The democratic renewal process in Nova Scotia need not get lost in the woods just yet, however. While the Commission’s Report recommends the House of Assembly consult with key minority communities to discuss ways to achieve fair and effective representation, it also strongly suggests the legislature “initiate a process involving both extensive critical examination and public consultation of the current electoral system and possible alternatives to it.” This is good news, and all of us who care about democracy should make sure it is acted upon.
Few principled people will argue that elections in Nova Scotia really reflect the will of the majority. Our voting system, called “First Past the Post” (FPTP) provides outcomes where a party can get a “majority” with just 45.2 percent of the vote (to take Nova Scotia’s 2009 election as an example). In this distortion of voters’ wishes we are not alone: federally, the Harper Conservatives received 39.6 percent of the vote in 2011, yet thanks to this phony majority under our FPTP system, they govern with near absolute power. Few should find that democratic.
Nor does Nova Scotia's House of Assembly represent us all equally. Women continue to be chronically under-represented in the provincial legislature: to our shame, less than a quarter of our MLAs are female. Aboriginals have always been under-represented, and only a few African Nova Scotians have ever been elected. Now, because of the limitations of “First Past the Post” and the redrawing of electoral boundaries, we are in danger of losing opportunities for ethno-cultural minority representation.
The Commission and the government currently find themselves in this unhappy situation largely as a result of trying to work within our flawed electoral system. More than just re-drawing district boundaries, it is time for a more genuine effort at improving our democracy. In fact it is well past time, when one considers that just about every aspect of our civil society has evolved since the establishment of our electoral system - from modernization of our laws and justice system, to universal suffrage, to responsible government. Only our voting system remains relatively unchanged, stuck in the 19th Century.
It’s time to improve our system by adding an element of proportional representation to it, the way most other modern democracies have already done. Shouldn’t a party get 45 percent of the seats with 45 percent of the vote – no more, and no less? Reforms could include multi-member districts, which would result in more women and minorities elected naturally, without the need for gerrymandering or small protected districts. MLAs could represent their district and their constituents’ interests, just as today. And best of all, Nova Scotians would finally have an equal vote that really counts.
As Ernest Naville put it in 1865, “the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all.” There is a better way forward, but in order to find it provincial leaders need to go back to some of the basic principles championed by the democrats that built Nova Scotia into one of the world’s leading democracies more than a century ago. Nova Scotia can, and should, lead again with a citizen-driven process to improve our dysfunctional electoral system.
Andy Blair, Stella Lord and Steve Caines are members of Fair Vote Nova Scotia.