Welcome, dear patron, to the ‘à la carte’ of democracy. In the next New Brunswick election, you may face choices you never thought possible. Imagine the province as a giant Tapas bar.
You’re sitting with 5,000 of your closest friends and you order – oh, let’s say – The Grit candidate’s robust filet mignon off the menu. Your seat neighbor prefers a spicy dish of Tory Italian sausage. Meanwhile, her elbow associate is particularly fond of whoever has emerged to prepare the riding’s patented, NDP seafood chowder.
But let’s say the waiter insists you can’t order your favorite without also choosing your second and third preferences (just in case the kitchen runs out of everything all at once). So you say, ‘Well, I want the steak, but after that I’ll take the sausage and chowder, in that order.’
The waiter bows unctuously, says, ‘very good sir’, and disappears. After a few days, you and your tablemates (now famished), receive equal portions of filet mignon and a small, side order of wiener. As for the chowder? It’s in the bin. Preferential voting is not a perfect solution, but its supporters say it’s better than the status quo, and by supporters I mean the members of the independent commission convened last fall to consider alternatives to the current first-past-the-post system. According to their report, released last week:
“Under the Preferential Ballot, ballots are structured to allow voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. Allowing for preference ranking on the ballot enables voters to express themselves in respect of their first choice candidate and allows them to vote for their second choice (or a number of choices) in the event that the preferred candidate may not be elected. Preferential Ballots in essence give more choices to the voters but do not force them to make a multitude of choices. For those voters who strongly support only one candidate, they would not have to rank any candidate they do not want. Voters are free to back as many or as few candidates as they like, giving them a strategic advantage as voters do not need to choose between voting for the party they like and voting for the party they think can beat the candidate or party that has lost their confidence: they can do both. Affiliation and loyalty to a party would not be affected.”
The commission makes other recommendations that may also raise eyebrows in the province, including: “The voting age in New Brunswick be lowered to 16. New Brunswickers 16 and older who have completed high school be allowed to seek public office. The requirement of possessing a valid high school diploma would not apply to individuals 18 or older.”
Then there’s the little matter of money in politics. The report advises that “political contributions by individuals, corporations and trade unions be lowered from the current $6,000” and that “political contributions from corporations and trade unions be phased out following the 2018 provincial election.”
If the purpose of the exercise was to determine effective ways to increase interest in politics and public institutions in general, then the commission’s spadework across the province over the past few months was worth the effort. The question is whether there’s enough will to implement the recommended changes. The signs are not especially encouraging. Premier Brian Gallant won’t reform the electoral landscape without a referendum on the subject.
All of this gets the province back to the central problem. We know we want something new off the democratic menu. It’s just that we can’t quite seem to make up our minds.