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Chronicle-Herald editorial

Riding review: Why not do ‘legislature lite’ exercise?
Sun, Aug 7, 2011 – 5:22 PM

CAN Nova Scotia get by with fewer MLAs?

Well, yes. It certainly has in the past. The lowest number was 30 during the Depression and war years. The average number in the century following Confederation was in the high 30s.

The current number, 52, is a high-water mark and has not changed since 1978.

Obviously, the population and its needs have changed over time. But so have communication and transportation links, which have enhanced citizens’ access to their MLAs and allowed the latter to represent more people more effectively.

Even if you think history is a poor guide, and you prefer to use current comparisons with other jurisdictions as a yardstick, it’s not difficult to come to the conclusion Nova Scotia is overgoverned for its small size.

It’s doubtful representative democracy would suffer terribly from a downsizing at the provincial legislature. The Canadian average hovers around 48,000 constituents per provincial representative. Nova Scotia’s current ratio is 19,000 to one, so there is plenty of room to manoeuvre.

No one is suggesting cutting the number of MLAs in half — a province does need a critical mass of legislators to function effectively — but there is a case to be made for returning to the mid- to high-30s level.

In New Brunswick — which has three more MLAs than Nova Scotia and an even smaller population — the provincial NDP is on record as saying 38 is enough. It estimates the savings would amount to $2 million a year.

In this province, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has begun banging the drum for a 33-member legislature, in the wake of rulings by the Utility and Review Board, which recently ordered the downsizing of municipal councils in Cape Breton and Halifax.

The group’s Atlantic director, Kevin Lacey, points out that the province is due for a routine 10-year electoral boundary review and says a new independent commission should have the mandate to look at downsizing as part of the process.

This is a sensible request.

Mr. Lacey argues that no municipal district should be bigger than a provincial riding, and that if things remain unchanged, HRM will end up being represented by 16 councillors and 19 MLAs. This is a valid point.

Less sound is his suggestion that all ridings should be roughly equivalent in size and that “protected” ridings, designed to favour the election of African-Canadian or Acadian candidates, be eliminated.

In our view, rural and minority representation does deserve special consideration. Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with having a healthy debate on the subject.

A smaller legislature would not significantly cut down on operational costs — although in the long run, fewer MLAs with fewer gold-plated pensions would save taxpayers millions.

There are better reasons, also symbolic, to explore this issue. At a time when equalization fatigue is setting in, in other parts of the country, it is worth sending a signal that have-not provinces are running their affairs as efficiently as possible.

At a time when the public service is being put in reverse due to structural deficits and demographic change, maintaining a top-heavy elected government hardly seems defensible.

On the other hand, there is probably one good reason not to launch a “legislature lite” exercise. It might consume Province House in parochial politics for a protracted period — to the detriment of effective governance in the here and now.

( edits@herald.ca)

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