Premier David Alward first promised a referendum law during his opposition to the proposed NB Power sale. (CBC)

The Progressive Conservative government introduced a referendum bill on Wednesday that will create a framework for giving voters a say in important decisions.

Premier David Alward championed the use of referendums during his party's fight against the failed deal to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec. He argued voters should have the right to vote for or against the energy deal through a referendum.

After the energy deal died, Alward continued to promote referendums, promising in the 2010 election campaign that the Progressive Conservatives would enact a provincial law.

The legislation will set out a system for government-initiated referendums. Unlike other countries, such as the United States and Switzerland, there will not be an option for citizen-initiated referendums.

Paul Howe, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, said the lack of an official citizen-initiated referendum provision does not mean people will be shut out of the process.

Howe said the NB Power issue is "the classic example" where the government may not have wanted to put the issue to a referendum, but citizens could have exerted their own pressure on politicians to use the law.

"If you have referendum legislation in place, that then allows citizens to push the government to use that legislation to hold a referendum. So there can be a sense of a citizen-initiated process," Howe said.

Instead, the provincial cabinet will decide on the subject and the text of the question will be debated inside the legislature.

The 2005 Commission on Legislative Democracy, which was started by the former Bernard Lord government, also advocated for a referendum law.

However, the Lord government failed to implement the report before losing power in 2006. And Shawn Graham's Liberal government also refused to follow up on the commission's recommendations.

Public input sought

Once the legislature debates the referendum's proposed question, a legislative committee will be appointed to seek public input on the referendum question. The public input offers a final outlet to change a referendum's question.

Once the question is officially agreed on, the legislation will allow referendums to be held in conjunction with a provincial election, a municipal election or as a stand-alone event.

If the referendum is held with another election, the actual cost of the voting process is anticipated to be negligible. However, if the referendum were held on its own, it is estimated the cost would be more than $5 million in order to pay for polling stations, workers and other election-related materials.

New Brunswick does not have a rich history in using direct democracy to settle policy discussions.

There have only been two province-wide referendums called in the last 40 years.

In 1967, voters turned down a proposal to lower the voting age to 18 from 21 by a margin of 69.5 per cent.

Most recently, the Lord government held a referendum on the future of video lottery terminals in 2001.

The Lord government decided in that instance the referendum outcome would be binding on the government.

Under the proposed legislation, the results of a referendum would only be binding on the government if it receives a double majority: 50 per cent of voters endorsing the question and 50 per cent of registered voters must vote in the referendum.

Using the double majority proposal, the 2001 referendum outcome would not have been binding on the Lord government.

While 53 per cent of voters endorsed the referendum, only 44 per cent of the population voted in the referendum.

The UNB political scientist said the double majority thresholds are reasonable.

For a referendum to be binding on a provincial government, Howe said it is important to have at least 50 per cent of voters cast their ballots in support of a proposed change.

Howe said some provincial governments have imposed high thresholds to pass referendums on electoral reform, which he said does not seem fair.

Minority rights protected

A common criticism of referendums is they can allow laws that are intended to protect minority interests to be trampled on.

The Alward government is putting in place a mechanism that ensures the referendum would not weaken or remove any rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights, the Human Rights Act, the Official Languages Act or the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick.

The proposed referendum law is diverting from the recommendation from the 2005 Commission on Legislative Democracy by not instituting a system of "yes" and "no" committees.

The idea is that having specific committees would help inform voters about the potential outcome of the referendum.

As well, the Alward government is not imposing strict referendum-specific campaign financing legislation on the process. Instead, any financing or advertising rules would be set out in regulation specifically for the referendum.

Howe said he was disappointed the Alward government did not allow for yes and no commitments or set firm contribution limits during referendum campaigns.