Beyond the Headlines

Between a rock and a hard place

Posted: Jun 6, 2012 2:43 PM ET Last Updated: Jun 6, 2012 2:43 PM ET

Redrawing electoral boundaries can be pretty dry stuff. But not in Nova Scotia.
 
In the past week we have seen an interim report that ignored its mandate, the resignation of one of the commission members, a very public rebuke from Premier Darrell Dexter, and now a mea culpa from the commission's chairperson.
 
It all started Friday when the Electoral Boundaries Commission released its interim report. It recommended dropping a riding in both Cape Breton and Central Nova while adding two in metro Halifax. And it said the province should keep the four so-called protected ridings of Argyle, Clare, Richmond and Preston, to ensure fair and equal representation for francophones and African-Nova Scotians.
 
The problem is those ridings are small and keeping them would violate one of the commission's terms of reference: that all constituencies must have a similar number of voters, with no difference greater than 25%.
 
Immediately one of the commission members, Jill Grant, resigned.
 
"In my view, the commission cannot ignore its terms of reference. It must follow the guidelines that the province has given it," Grant said after the report's release.
 
It's hard to say why the rest of the commission members didn't see it that way. Traditionally, whenever a government sets up a commission, everything it does is governed by its terms of reference. These are not merely guidelines or suggestions, they are rules.
 
Perhaps they felt the interim report would embarrass the government into changing the 25 per cent rule. If that was the case, they clearly misjudged the resolve of the Dexter government.
 
On Tuesday, Premier Darrel Dexter issued the equivalent of a public spanking, telling the commission he expects them to obey the terms of reference, and he expects to see that reflected in its final report.
 
That basically left the commission members with two options: resign on a point of principle, or accept the rebuke and go back to the drawing board.
 
Late Tuesday night they chose the latter.
 
"We hear the message loud and clear," said commission chair Teresa MacNeil after a conference call with her fellow commissioners.
 
"At the end of the day, it's been made very clear that our report won't be acceptable if we don't accede to those (terms of reference) totally," says MacNeil, "but can I say we finally will? I will say only that we will do our level best."
 
Not quite a complete and total capitulation, but certainly no show of defiance, either.
 
The Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse, which clearly wants the francophone ridings protected, says while it's not surprised, it is disappointed the Premier has "destroyed" all the work done by the commission.
 
The opposition parties say the NDP should take the handcuffs off, remove the 25 per cent rule and let the commission decide the best way to ensure fair and equal representation for all Nova Scotians.
 
The NDP government has made it clear it has no intention of changing the terms of reference. So where does that leave the commission?
 
It will spend the rest of the summer holding public hearings and re-writing its report, knowing that unless it makes major changes, the government could find a way to reject the final report and it will have wasted a lot of the public's time and money.
 
"We absolutely don't want to see that", says MacNeil, "so it's kind of like being between a rock and a hard place isn't it?"
 
It certainly is.
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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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