Two weeks ago, New Brunswick’s Commission on Electoral Reform released its recommendations for increasing both voter participation, and the participation of underrepresented groups in our elections. Voter participation has been in freefall since the 1987 election, with only 64 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot in 2014, down from 82 percent 30 years ago.
Democracy is the means by which we make collective decisions about our society, yet 36% of New Brunswickers didn’t show up to vote in the last election. Why? Could it be that New Brunswickers are feeling poorly served by our democratic institutions?
Samara, a charitable organization dedicated to connecting citizens to politics, polls Canadians on their views about our democracy. What have they found? Canadians are withdrawing from the democratic system, because they see politics as irrelevant. Only 54 percent believe members of parliament can shape the direction of the country.
In rating the performance of their MPs, respondents gave them a mark of 46 for “representing the views of constituents” and 45 for “holding the government to account”. Parliamentarians only broke through the pass threshold, scoring a 61, on “representing the views of their party.”
The Commission on Electoral Reform made many good recommendations, including developing an annual report to the Legislature on the state of democracy in New Brunswick, phasing out political contributions from corporations and trade unions, lowering the voting age to 16, extending the right to vote to permanent residents who are not yet citizens, providing a financial incentive for parties to run more women, and considering some form of proportional representation. While government should act on these recommendations, the mandate of the Commission did not enable it to examine the central crisis in our democracy, the growing view that our democratic institutions are irrelevant.
After serving as the MLA for Fredericton South and the Leader of the Third Party in the Legislature for two and a half years, I can understand this growing, but dangerous body of opinion. Over many years, an extraordinary amount of power has been concentrated in the Premier’s office, usurping both the authority of the Legislative Assembly and the role of cabinet. This has gone on for so long that anyone under the age of 50 has known little else than decisions made by executive fiat in the Premier’s office.
How do we re-invest the authority that rightfully belongs to elected representatives back into our provincial parliament? Donald Savoie, professor of public administration at the Université de Moncton, offered this advice to Justin Trudeau in a Maclean’s interview in 2015, “. . . start by showing some respect for Parliament. Declare that you won’t have any more omnibus bills. Declare that your government and cabinet will have the utmost respect for MPs and committees of Parliament.”
Professor Savoie’s advice is as relevant for Brian Gallant today, as it was for Justin Trudeau then. Respect the role of all MLAs, including those on the government side of the House, and respect the committees of the Legislative Assembly.
It looks like Justin Trudeau is heeding Donald Savoie’s advice. Last week, contrary to the wishes of the Prime Minister, sufficient numbers of Liberal backbenchers, joined with their colleagues from the Conservatives, NDP and Greens to vote in favour of a bill to prevent health and life insurance companies from forcing clients to disclose the results of genetic testing.
I have yet to see this happen in our provincial parliament. Government members in New Brunswick do not feel free to vote as they wish.
At the level of Legislative Committees, on the rare occasion where we achieved unanimity among all three parties, twice now I have seen such agreements overturned by the meddling of the Executive Branch in the Legislature’s business.
New Brunswickers want us to work together. They want their representatives to speak on their behalf in the Legislative Assembly, to work collaboratively to hold the government to account, and to vote accordingly. They want to see us work effectively in committees to ensure government departments and Crown Corporations are spending public money effectively and efficiently. They want us to collaborate to produce effective legislation that advances the public good, whether a bill is initiated by government, by a member of one of the opposition parties, or by a government backbencher. They expect that constructive amendments to improve bills are welcomed and supported. And they expect that they should have the chance to appear before a committee, to bring their suggestions and concerns directly to the Legislature.
This is what a more effective Legislature would look like. This is what democracy would look like. This is what I am fighting for.
David Coon is the MLA for Fredericton-South and the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick.