Electoral Boundaries Exceeding Authority

Chapter Three of the Interim Report of the Nova Scotia Electoral Boundaries Commission is tittled, “Interpretation of the Terms of Reference.” It might more honestly be called, “Decision to Disregard the Terms of Reference.”

That’s what seven members of the commission decided to do: overrule the Terms of Reference set down in law by the elected representatives of Nova Scotia. They did so in response to a vociferous lobby by Acadians and African Nova Scotians, anxious to retain the four seats exempted from rep-by-pop to encourage the election of MLAs representing those ethnic groups.

The seven members  — Chair Teresa MacNeil,* Johnstown, Richmond County; Vice-Chair J. Colin Dodds, Halifax; James P. Bickerton, Antigonish; Douglas Peach, Marion Bridge; Paul Gaudet, Saulnierville; Rustum Southwell, Bedford; and Barbara Feeney, Mahone Bay — cloaked their genteel rebellion in the gossamer pretext that they were merely interpreting the mandate. “A literal interpretation,” they say, “would require the Commission to substantially alter the boundaries of the four [protected] constituencies.” Well, yes, and the plain meaning of the words would do that too.

The majority concluded that “removal of this protection… raises significant social, cultural, and political issues,” and “consequently,” they decided to retain the protected status for Argyle, Clare, Preston, and Richmond. Oh, well, it raises issues, does it? To heck with the rule of law, then.

Here’s what the lone dissenting commissioner, Jill Grant of Dartmouth, had to say about the majority’s claim that the Terms of Reference are not mandatory:

I disagree with this interpretation and decision. While the Commission has the independence to conduct its work at arm’s length from government, the scope of the Commission’s independence is necessarily defined and constrained by the TOR which the Legislature provided to guide the process. As the democratically elected body with the mandate to articulate the will of the people, only the Legislature has the authority to specify the principles and values which should guide the Commission in redrawing electoral boundaries. The Commission exceeds its  authority in substituting alternative principles to those provided by the government of the province.

This is beyond serious debate. Once the seven commissioners found themselves in profound disagreement with the mandate, they had two ethical choices: resign from the commission; or swallow hard and complete their assigned task.

Late today, Justice Minister Ross Landry issued a frosty statement “welcoming” the commission’s interim report, and ending with this stern admonition:

The House of Assembly set the terms of reference for the commission with a final report to be submitted by Aug. 31, 2012. The final report must meet the terms of reference as set out by the House of Assembly.

This, too, is exactly right. The commissioners can go along, or resign. And if they resign, they will ensure that all future boundary commissions will be packed with hacks the parties can count on to follow the rules.

– – –

* Disclosure: MacNeil is a valued friend, even on those rare occasions when I think she’s way off base.