A wise old Dalhousie professor once advised: “Read the Halifax Chronicle-Herald editorial and believe the opposite.” Case in point: Sunday’s misguided, misleading screed titled “Riding review—Why not do ‘legislature lite’ exercise?”
The editorial laments the size of the province’s 52-member legislature, concluding “Nova Scotia is over-governed for its small size.” Citing the right-wing lobby group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a recent, controversial Utility and Review Board decision to slash the size of Halifax city council, it advocates cutting the number of elected provincial representatives by about 15 or 17 members, to a number in the mid-to high-30s.
I’ll explain why that’s a rotten idea that serves nobody but power-brokers and business types like the cleverly misnamed Taxpayers Federation, but first I should back up a moment to clarify the Herald’s editorial position. In typical “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” Herald fashion, the editorial doesn’t strongly advocate cutting the number of politicians. Instead, it suggests exploring the issue of a smaller legislature, in part because “it is worth sending a signal that have-not provinces are running their affairs as efficiently as possible.” Maybe Stephen Harper will smile more kindly upon our “culture of defeat” if we have fewer elected reps? The editorial also claims that with a weak economy and “demographic change” (whatever that means), “maintaining a top-heavy elected government hardly seems defensible.”
Cutting opposition voices
The idea that our elected legislature is “top heavy” and must strive for greater efficiency is at best misinformed and at worst a disservice to the citizens the Herald claims to serve. MPs, MLAs and municipal councillors are elected to bring their constituents’ concerns to government, to ensure laws serve the greatest number while protecting the rights of our most vulnerable citizens, and to hold the bureaucracy and—in the case of opposition MPs or MLAs—the ruling party accountable. In our current provincial government, for example, 21 of the 52 elected MLAs are members of the opposition. Cutting the legislature by as many as 17 MLAs would also cut the number of oppositional voices—not a good thing for democracy, which depends on (often inefficient, messy, slow) challenge and debate.
Furthermore, the editorial admits cutting the number of MLAs won’t save much money. Most of the province’s roughly $9 billion budget finances social programs and keeps government departments afloat. The $74,000 of misspent funds in Nova Scotia’s infamous 2010 MLA expense account scandal, for example, was a drop in the bucket compared to the province’s actual operating budget, or compared to the $52 million the Auditor General singled out as money wasted by unaccountable P3 school deals. Yet when it comes to making government more “efficient,” right-wing pundits and editorial writers consistently look to cut numbers of elected representatives and civil servants—the very people whose job it is to (a) hold government accountable and (b) deliver public services.
The Herald’s mission statement says the paper “is dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that wrong shall not thrive unopposed.” It’s a noble but sad, ironic statement now that the Herald has slashed one-quarter of its newsroom staff and axed its best freelance columnists. Who’s left to champion good causes and oppose wrongs? Cutting the number of elected representatives further diminishes citizens’ access to government and their ability to have rights championed and wrongs opposed.
Laura Landon is a librarian who has worked as a journalist, editor, researcher, and as a constituency assistant with the Nova Scotia NDP.