New Brunswick·Updated

N.B. political, legislative reforms proposed

New Brunswick should revamp some of its oldest legislative and political traditions in an effort to re-engage citizens in democracy and give a voice to smaller parties, according to a new report.

New Brunswick should revamp some of its oldest legislative and political traditions in an effort to re-engage citizens in democracy and give a voice to smaller parties, according to a new report.

Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John and Cody Waite, a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick, authored a 66-page report to be released Friday in Fredericton.

Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, co-wrote a report on reforming New Brunswick's democratic and legislative systems. ((CBC))
The report, which Premier David Alward requested after last fall's election, offers a series of possible reforms and examples of how the legislative process could become more effective and ways to better engage citizens.

Desserud, who is one of New Brunswick's best-known political analysts, repeatedly raised the need to address the province's electoral system, even though that was not in the report's original mandate.

"We believe, then, that external reforms — in particular reforms of the province's electoral system — are necessary, long overdue and essential if New Brunswick's governance system is to successfully re-engage the province's citizens," Desserud said.

"However, we do not believe that the solution to these problems will be a simple one."

The UNB political science professor said there was a consensus among the people he spoke with during the writing of his report that electoral reform was needed and that "some variation of proportional representation was the reform consistently called for."

This isn't the first time the New Brunswick government has commissioned a report to examine the province's political and legislative framework.

Former premier Bernard Lord assembled a Commission on Legislative Democracy in his second term, which filed a substantial report in 2005. Lord was ousted from office before he had time to implement many of the commission's recommendations.

Desserud's report said the commission's report, even though it is six years old, provides an important starting point for many of his proposals.

Creating greater access

The Desserud report did not offer many concrete proposals that would instantly give smaller political parties a new voice in the legislative process.

Liberal MLA Chris Collins studies his briefing notes in a legislative committee. The Desserud report calls for more resources to MLAs on legislative committees. ((CBC))
Instead, the report offered starting points for reform and left it up to the province's 55 MLAs to work out the finer details.

For instance, the report said the daily question period format should be reviewed to see if it can be improved, the daily order paper that sets out the legislature's agenda should be overhauled as some items are no longer useful and the committee structure should be revamped.

Committees should be given the power to initiate their own reviews of government programs and to hold more public meetings, especially events outside of the capital.

"The more important and comprehensive the subject matter, the more worthwhile the experience serving on the committee — and the higher the committee's profile — will be," the report said.

"Meaningful participation by third parties and other private participants is possible, but such opportunities must be chosen carefully and all parties must recognize that such opportunities will be rare."

With the exception of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, all committees are led by government MLAs so there could still be questions about how these strengthened committees would challenge any policy that may be sensitive for a government.

However, the report did call for more legislative committees and encouraged appointing representatives from third parties.

"We would leave it to the legislature to determine what select committees to strike, but we would suggest that committees dealing with electoral reform, economic renewal, and perhaps health would be appropriate starting points," the report said.

Even though the Progressive Conservative government is going through a period of fiscal restraint as it tries to reduce the $448-million deficit, Desserud said more money needs to be spent on enhancing the research support given to committees.

"The goal of providing research support is to increase the independence and improve the capacity of backbench MLAs," the report said.

Allowing for new voices

Roger Duguay saw the NDP's share of the popular vote double in the 2010 election, but his party was still shut out of the legislature. He resigned after the campaign. ((CBC))
While Alward had already promised to look for new ways to include third parties in the legislative process, the Sept. 27, 2010, election provided more ammunition to supporters of smaller parties who have been calling for a larger voice.

The Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, combined, made up roughly 83 per cent of the popular vote in the last provincial election and received 100 per cent of the 55 seats. Therefore, 17 per cent of voters cast their ballots for a party that is not represented inside the legislative assembly.

The 2010 election not only saw the NDP double its share of the popular vote compared to the 2006 election, but it also saw two upstart parties.

The Green Party and the People's Alliance of New Brunswick each fielded candidates in the election and was provided a spot in the televised leaders' debates.

But once the election was over, and the three smaller parties were each shut out of the legislative, their political voices were largely silenced.

Offering more free votes

Kris Austin, the leader of the People's Alliance, voted on Sept. 27. His upstart party campaigned hard on offering more free votes. ((CBC))
The People's Alliance ran a strong campaign in 2010 on the issue of offering MLAs more free votes. Alward's Tories said they too would allow for more free votes, but on amendments to government legislation.

The Desserud report renewed a call first made by the Commission on Legislative Democracy to copy the British system of three-line whips.

Currently, MLAs are expected to vote the party line and party leaders can make political life difficult for any defectors. Premiers can also deem votes to be questions of confidence, meaning a defeat could trigger an election.

A three-line whip system would outline what votes were absolutely confidence motions, so a strict party line vote would be required, a second tier that members of cabinet or a shadow cabinet would need to follow a party line and an absolute free vote.

The idea would be to give MLAs more flexibility to vote in the way that best represents their constituents.

The report did offer a cautionary note about putting too much faith in this reform.

"The large size of the U.K. House of Commons allows for much greater freedom in MP voting than would exist in New Brunswick, and in all likelihood even the use of a three-line whip would rarely result in MLAs voting against the party line," the report said.

"MLAs will quickly come to regard free votes as an excellent opportunity to score even bigger points with their colleagues and party leadership."