New Brunswick

Opposition parties offered control of electoral reform committee

The Liberal government has offered to give two opposition parties control over a legislative committee that will study overhauling the province's electoral system.

8-person group would include 4 Liberals, 3 PCs, and Green leader with likely a Liberal non-voting chair

Deputy House Leader Victor Boudreau said the government is prepared to allow the opposition parties to control a committee examining electoral reform. (CBC)

The Liberal government has offered to give two opposition parties control over a legislative committee that will study overhauling the province's electoral system.

The Liberals say they're willing to give up their majority on the committee to persuade the opposition Progressive Conservatives to join the consultations on new voting systems, a lower voting age, online voting, and other possible changes.

Premier Brian Gallant said in question period "We're not even seeking a majority of the composition" of the eight-member committee, the first time the Liberals have made that concession.

Deputy government House Leader Victor Boudreau told reporters he's proposing four Liberals, three PCs, and Green Leader David Coon make up the committee. With one of the Liberals likely to become the non-voting chair of the committee, the other parties could outvote the government 4-3.

"We want this to be bipartisan, neutral," Boudreau said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Bruce Fitch is concerned the Liberals will try to use electoral reform to their own advantage. (CBC)
The PCs say they suspect the committee's mandate and its outcome are being orchestrated by the Liberals to give themselves an advantage in the next election.

They say they weren't given copies of the government's discussion paper until late Tuesday and only learned Wednesday that the Liberals were willing to give up their majority.

"The government dictated to the opposition: `We want you to participate, but we don't want you to make decisions on how the committee is formed or what the mandate of that committee is,'" PC Leader Bruce Fitch said.

PCs want referendum guarantee

The PCs also want the Liberals to guarantee any recommendations on a new voting system are put to a referendum.

But Boudreau says the idea of a referendum is one the committee itself should discuss.

"We don't even know what the results [of the consultations] are going to be," he said. It's possible the committee may recommend keeping the existing first-past-the-post system.

"So then do we have to have a referendum on the status quo?" Boudreau asked. "The question of a referendum will be up to the committee."

Pivotal vote to Green leader

Boudreau's suggested make-up of the committee would give Coon the pivotal tie-breaking vote on the committee if the three Liberals and three PCs can't agree on recommendations.

Coon says with the Liberals giving up their majority, the PCs should agree to sit on the committee without conditions.

David Coon thinks the Progressive Conservatives should agree to sit on an electoral reform committee without conditions.
"It's pretty unusual for a standing committee that members would take that kind of position just in terms of participating in the standing committee," he said.

"Presumably one of the standing committee's recommendations could be that, that nothing should move forward without a referendum."

Coon said he found the discussion paper poorly thought out but he said the committee itself will have the power to modify its mandate, and input from the public will also steer the debate.

"I'm not going to get myself tied into knots over that," he said, referring to PC objections that they weren't consulted on the document. "It's not unusual for a government to put out a discussion paper before a committee is established."

Boudreau said if the PCs refuse to sit on the committee "we will have to find another way to gather feedback from New Brunswickers" in the coming months and hope the new PC leader being chosen in October will have a change of heart.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.