Should a black person’s vote count more? How about an Acadian’s?
That’s been the case in Nova Scotia for decades, with riding composition finessed so these minority communities send a disproportionate number of MLAs to the provincial legislature.
The disparity is nothing compared to Old Sarum -- the most notorious of the United Kingdom’s historic “rotten boroughs,” in which MPs were sometimes elected by a tiny number of voters -- but it has long raised fundamental questions of democratic fairness.
Not for much longer. In the last days of December an NDP-government-dominated committee decided that the terms of reference for the drawing of new ridings would no longer allow such variance in population size. All opposition members on the committee opposed the move and news of it set off a storm of debate that continues to rage.
“We’re absolutely floored ... this was a fait accompli,” Ronald Robichaud, president of the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse, said this week. “We think after this many years these communities have a right to this voice in the legislature.”
He noted that Acadians who returned after the 18th-century expulsion dispersed around the province, reducing their political weight. His group is currently weighing a Charter challenge to protect the three seats set aside for Acadians.
The legislative voice of blacks and Acadians was never big even with the special ridings, which accounted for only four of the 52 seats contested in the most recent provincial election. But the politicians elected in each of these served an electorate only about half the provincial riding average, letting the minority groups punch above their weight. Under the new rules, the population of no riding will be allowed to vary more than 25 per cent from the provincial average. That effectively eliminates the possibility of the current special representation ridings.
The committee decision was taken in camera and the government isn’t saying much about it. But opposition continues to churn.
Henry Bishop, the chief curator at the Black Cultural Society for Nova Scotia, in the outskirts of Halifax, said that it is important not to get hung up on the numbers of voters in a riding. He argues that, taking the broader view, there is not a level playing field for blacks in the province, meaning that equality of opportunity is not enough to ensure fairness.
“Equality and equity are two different things,” he said. “Why would they have [established these ridings]in the first place? Ask yourself that, if it was not necessary.”
In the wake of last week’s decision by the government here, one school of thought is that the NDP, which doesn’t hold any of these seats, is looking to benefit from re-distribution. Another argument holds that the opposition is voicing outrage from self-interest, worried about losing ground in the legislature.
Another possibility, if your New Year’s resolution was to be less cynical, is that it might be the right thing to do.