Democratic Reform: Can political system stomach a makeover?

By Kathy Kaufield
Published January 18th 2005 in The Telegraph-Journal

David McLaughlin has a few words of caution for New Brunswick's political elite: get ready to leave your comfort zone.

The government's Commission on Legislative Democracy will release its final report tomorrow, recommending a sweeping makeover of New Brunswick's political system, including changes to how our MLAs are elected, how much power they have and how political parties should operate.

"This will make many members of the political class uncomfortable because it challenges certain assumptions and it challenges their primacy by putting citizens first," says Mr. McLaughlin, deputy minister for the Commission on Legislative Democracy.

"This is going to be very difficult for the people in authority, everybody in authority. It is going to challenge the conventional wisdom and the conventional approaches of the government, of the Opposition and their role, of the MLAs as elected people," he says.

Mr. McLaughlin chuckles a little at the thought of this - not because democratic reform is a laughing matter, but because few know better than he does about life in political backrooms.

Until he took on the job at the commission more than a year ago, Mr. McLaughlin was one of Premier Bernard Lord's closest advisors. After working as a chief of staff for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Premier Lord and after slogging it out in the trenches during federal and provincial election campaigns, he knows first-hand about the power struggles, the petty politics and the turf wars that are common-place behind closed political doors.

He also knows political insiders and politicians don't take kindly to having the rug pulled out from under them, something that will most certainly happen if the government adopts the nearly 90 recommendations contained in the commission's final report.

Mr. McLaughlin is more than willing to leave his comfort zone. In fact, he's become a passionate advocate for democratic reform in this province and here's why: fewer New Brunswickers are participating in the electoral process. Voter turnout in the 2003 provincial election was the lowest ever recorded - 69 per cent. That's down from a high of 83 per cent in the late 1960s. Cynicism and distrust about politicians and the political process is growing. Young people are less and less engaged in the political system. And we're tied with Manitoba as having the second-worst results among Canadian provinces in electing women to the Legislative Assembly.

"There is a sense that our politicians are not relevant, that they just adopt the party line, it doesn't matter what the people want. That breeds cynicism, that leads to discontent that leads to disaffection that leads to disengagement," Mr. McLaughlin says.

If the trend continues over the next few decades, we will likely grow a generation of non-voters and that would prompt questions of the very legitimacy of our democratic institutions, he says.

New Brunswick is not alone in this struggle. Four other provinces - Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia - are examining democratic reforms as well.

"The case for change is so compelling that I don't think anyone can ignore it," he says.

Although public participation in the commission's year-long process was low, the commission's research was exhaustive.

The commission's research chair, Mount Allison University's Dr. Bill Cross, brought together academic experts from across New Brunswick and Canada to contribute to the report. The commission organized targeted consultation forums with a wide variety of groups, researched democratic renewal across Canada and in other parts of the world, held expert roundtables on everything from the role of MLAs to civic engagement.

According to its interim report released late last year, the commission is considering substantial recommendations to change the way we elect our MLAs by moving to a partial system of proportional representation, where parties win some seats based on their vote percentage. The commission is also considering recommendations to give MLAs more power in the legislature, fixed election dates, a referendum act and changes to the way appointments are made to government agencies, boards and commissions.

When Premier Lord announced the establishment of the commission in 2003, cynics questioned whether the whole idea was just an expensive make-work project for Mr. McLaughlin, one of the architects behind the Tories' near-disastrous 2003 election campaign.

That's clearly not the case and despite the lack of public interest, the commission's work is timely and necessary.

When the final report is released tomorrow, New Brunswickers can expect to see a detailed proposal for a partial proportional representation model as well as some thought-provoking recommendations aimed at increasing the number of women in the legislature, increasing transparency in political parties and taking appointments to board and commissions out of the political backrooms.

"(The report) is groundbreaking, provocative and it's bold in many ways. I think most of all, it's challenging," he says. "But at the end of the day, I hope it's described as one thing: influential."

Kathy Kaufield covers the legislature for the Telegraph-Journal. Her column appears on Tuesday. She can be reached at [email protected]