New Brunswick government will not hold referendum on MMP

The Liberal Party government of New Brunswick, which took power in elections last fall, thanks to the existing FPTP system’s reversal of the popular-vote outcome, has called off the referendum on the electoral system planned for February, 2008. That referendum had been scheduled by the previous Conservative government in response to the recommendation of the independent Commission on Legislative Democracy. The major recommendation of the Commission had been to move the provincial legislative elections to MMP. Instead, the current government calls for a series of relatively timid steps towards political reform, not including any the reform of the very electoral system that produced the current spurious-majority government.

In the run-up to that election, I asked if electoral reform was “stalled” (on account of the major parties’ ignoring the already public reform recommendations in their platforms). After the anomaly of the plurality reversal, I speculated on whether a government that was based on the second-most vote thanks to the system the Commission proposed to abolish through referendum would have the nerve to call off a referendum that had been agreed to by the party that, in fact, obtained the plurality when seeking reelection. Well, now we know. Some nerve!

12 thoughts on “New Brunswick government will not hold referendum on MMP

  1. Is anyone really surprised?

    I get mixed signals about the Ontario referendum, too. Among old friends in Canada, those who’ve followed the issue more closely are less optimistic.

  2. Jack,

    At the risk of hijacking a thread that’s supposed to be about New Brunswick, what do your Ontario sources see as the main problem? My impression is that in both British Columbia in 2005 and Ontario now, the biggest roadblock was/is lack of publicity and information.

    The New Brunswick government’s behavior seems especially cheeky in view of the fact that there’s an arguably better way: (1) impose a very high supermajority requirement (in fact, two of them), and (2) promise to educate the public and then don’t get around to it.

    Of course, this strategy almost failed in British Columbia (58% of the province-wide vote where 60% was needed; simple majorities in 97% of the districts where majorities were needed in 60% of the districts). Maybe the New Brunswick Liberals do need to be cheeky.

  3. Interesting – I lived in BC during the STV referendum and I now live in Ontario. I got the sense in BC that people really wanted a change but (a) did not understand STV very well and (b) lacked the ability to get well informed on it. But the growth in numbers of people supporting it during the campaign was quite remarkable, and I think 5 extra days in the campaign would have been enough to hit that 60% threshold.

    Here in Ontario, I am getting more of a vibe that people don’t want change as much – that goes along with the political culture of Ontarion being a little more traditionalist than BC. But I think a lot will depend on what the Globe/Citizen/Star etc. have to say on the subject – if the editorialists start endorsing the system (and don’t bring up the dreaded I’s) then I hope we have a shot.

    To bring this back on topic, I will be using the fact that a 2nd place NB government is cancelling the referendum as proof that we need to vote in the new system while we have the chance!

  4. Paradoxically, cancelling a referendum may prove to be a popular decision. One big factor helping the No case in the UK’s 2011 AV referendum was the argument that holding a poll on the issue was a waste of millions of pounds. (Presumably No2AV would have been far happier had Clegg pressured Cameron to bring in AV by ordinary vote of Parliament, no?).
    Elections, too, can be unpopular simply by virtue of the fact they’re being held early and the voters feel (in the memorable words of Margaret Whitlam in 1973) that election campaigns are like pregnancies, inasmuch as as soon as you’re over the last one, another one comes along.
    if drafting a Constitution, I’d consider including a provision that very uncontroversial amendments can be passed without a referendum – some very steep threshold, eg, the Bill for the proposed amendment must be tabled for at least 24 months, cannot receive assent before its second anniversary, and if, at any time before it receives assent, it is challenged by (a) a motion or petition signed by 10% of the members of either House, or (b) a petition signed by 2.5% of the eligible voters, or (c) (in a federation or strongly regionalised union) resolutions by the assemblies of at least 10% of the provinces, then it cannot be enacted without a referendum.

    • The problem is that AV would not have passed without a referendum under your scheme. It is hard to imagine any amendment that would, and the referendum would then involve a whole lot of ‘This is the amendment those devious bastards tried to sneak through the parliament!’.

      In 2000, Queensland consolidated their constitution. They considered several alternatives for ways to refer the reigning monarch, rejecting both ‘Queen or King’ and ‘King or Queen’ in favour of ‘Sovereign’. This has led to a considerable body of somewhat uninformed opinion that the use of ‘Sovereign’ is an eldritch and sinister republican plot.

      The solution is constitutions expressed in clear language and political parties that are prepared to campaign seriously on constitutional issues.

      • Oh, I agree that AV should have needed a referendum to be introduced in the UK. It was a quite significant change. I just think NO2AV were being unusually cheeky (even by NO2AV’s standards) in arguing that the fact voters were getting a vote on the question was itself reason to vote “No”.
        The reason why I’d support a two-track procedure – modelled on, say, Spain (referendum if 10% of MPs demand) or the ACT (Self-Government Act amendable by the ACT Assembly only by two-thirds majority or with a referendum) – is so that minor technical details can be adjusted without the enormous cost of a referendum.
        I’m thinking of amendments such as the changeover date following an election (Australia in 1906, the US in 1933) and some of the more dated provisions in the entrenched rules for the NSW Legislative Council (random sampling for surplus transfers, for example, or the fifteen-preferences minimum).
        Two decades ago, someone told me about the student union at one Australian university that adopted a new constitution. A few months into its very first year of operation, the councillors realized they had omitted any provision for filling casual vacancies. Worse, a number of decisions required a resolution passed by absolute majority, which had been defined as more than half the total number of positions on the council. This came to require near-unanimity of those councillors remaining.
        In the two years following, the council out up two referenda trying to amend the Constitution to introduce a system for filling vacant positions (which sounded like STV count-back crossed with by-elections). In both referenda,about 12 or 13% of all students voted yes, less than half a percent voted no, and the vast majority abstained. Unfortunately, the new Constitution had also adopted a 15% quorum for referenda – not clear whether it was a turnout quorum or an approval quorum, but either way the amendments kept losing by default.
        So in the third year, the student politicians adopted a cunning plan and put forward a purely advisory policy referendum on some hot-button issue (abortion, I think, from memory). They ran the Constitution amendment referendum in conjunction. Turnout was way up and the casual vacancies provision was approved by something like a whopping 25% to 2%.

  5. As futher thread drift, let me point out that, in Quebec, referenda are reserved for the most serious matters such as sovereignty, or a major package of constitutional amendments. Changing voting systems does not, in Canada, require a constitutional amendment. Quebec was going to change to MMP-5 (regions of only 5 MNAs, which I would call “MMP-lite” except that the compensatory MNAs were 40% of the MNAs), without a referendum, until public opinion made the Liberal government admit that DM 5 failed to respect “the principle of increasing the political diversity of the National Assembly” and they went off on a long (very long) search for a model they could live with.

    When the Law Commission of Canada recommended a model for Canada requiring no constitutional amendment, they said “holding a referendum should be considered,” but noted that Quebec did not then plan to hold one, Japan had not held one, and there were several good arguments against one. Instead they recommended “a Parliamentary committee should initiate a public consultation process on the proposed new electoral system. The public consultation process should be broadly representative and adequately resourced. It could consider the option of holding a referendum.” And they recommended a review “after three general elections have been conducted under the new electoral rules.”

    The LawCommission noted “While adding a referendum to give legitimacy to a proposed reform appears attractive, it does raise a number of concerns. First, and primarily, other reforms have been made without the benefit of a referendum, for example the reform of financing political parties. Why should one reform be subject to referendum approval and not others? In a country with little tradition for referendums on issues other than those involving constitutional amendment, is it appropriate to begin such a process? How can we distinguish between legislative change that requires referendum approval and change that does not?
    Secondly, referendums can oversell a reform, that is, the referendum process tends to present the proposed reform as “the best and the only” approach, whereas it is quite clear that improving Canadian democracy requires more than just electoral reform.
    Third, referendums can be divisive. For relatively technical issues such as electoral system reform, it might be a better idea to put electoral reform at the center of electoral debates for a specific election, thereby creating opportunities for citizen dialogue and participation.
    Finally, a careful analysis of the costs and benefits of holding a referendum should be done. If a referendum is deemed necessary, then the issue of “third-party” spending should be considered. The issue of “third-party” spending has been fought in the courts for well over a decade. . . . the experience in other jurisdictions, particularly New Zealand’s, has indicated that the issue of third-party advertising may justify imposing some limits.”

    • While Tom has been correctly critical of the facepalm stupidity of many of the arguments in the AV referendum in Britain, constitutional referendums in Australia have been no better. I have the unhappy experience of being on the losing side in every referendum in my life except for the republic in 1999 where I voted No because the proposed republic was an eighteenth century absurdity.

      An amendment to co-ordinate the terms of the house of representatives and the senate so that half the senate would be elected at each general election has been defeated 4 times since the 1970s. The Australian constitution does not explicitly provide that an election must follow a dissolution. The rule is there but you have to look for it. In 1977 the No case famously relied on this unhappy drafting yo argue that the amendment provided for simultaneous dissolutions, not explicit simultaneous elections, for both houses and was therefore a plot to end the regular holding of elections. They did not win a majority of the lectors, but they did prevent the amendment winning in a majority of states.

  6. I suppose at least the Scottish referendum was in some way focused around the general issue of whether Scotland should be an independent country, even if some of the arguments on both sides were a bit overblown. Had it fallen to the same level as the AV referendum, we’d have heard Team No warning that if Scotland seceded from the UK it would quickly be conquered by its powerful neighbours Mongolia, Tuvalu, Ruritania and Westeros.

  7. To be fair, on the other hand, the YES! Independence! Woo Hoo! campaign would probably have argued that (a) Scotland cannot have its own permanent seat on the UN Security Council as long as it is a sub-Unit of the UK,so therefore (b) it is very likely that after a few short years of independence, Scotland would have its own permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s