March 16, 2017 10:44 am
Updated: March 16, 2017 12:36 pm

NS court ruling not barrier to potential election call: professor

FILE: A ballot box is pictured. A political scientist says there is little to prevent the Nova Scotia government from calling an election before it deals with electoral boundary questions raised by a recent court opinion.

FILE: A ballot box is pictured. A political scientist says there is little to prevent the Nova Scotia government from calling an election before it deals with electoral boundary questions raised by a recent court opinion.

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A Nova Scotia political scientist says a recent court ruling on electoral boundaries doesn’t necessarily prevent the provincial government from calling an election before it deals with the issues raised around minority representation.

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Tom Urbaniak, an expert in governance at Cape Breton University, says the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruling released in January was an advisory opinion that the government had asked for on constitutional grounds and isn’t binding.

The court found that a previous boundary redrawing by the former NDP government violated the voter rights section of the Charter of Rights and both the Opposition Progressive Conservatives and NDP legislature member Sterling Belliveau have since said they are looking at legal options if there is no formal boundary review.

The Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia took court action after the 2012 boundary change eliminated three protected Acadian districts.

“It (the ruling) doesn’t say thou shall not have an election until this is resolved, nor does it say that the so-called protected ridings have to be restored,” Urbaniak said in an interview.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia must review riding boundaries before election or risk legal action: Tories

Urbaniak said the ruling established that the 2012 process was flawed under the House of Assembly Act and on constitutional grounds because the terms of reference were written in such a way that kept the electoral boundaries commission from balancing various interests including minority rights.

“It put too much of the weight on representation by population,” he said.

Michel Samson, the minister responsible for the Office of Acadian Affairs, has refused to divulge the government’s response to the court ruling. Talks are ongoing with the Acadian Federation about how to proceed and Samson has said the outcome of those discussions will be made public.

Meanwhile, speculation is high Premier Stephen McNeil could call an election by spring or early fall and Urbaniak said it’s far from certain any potential injunction request to try to prevent a vote would be met favourably by a court.

“I think the courts would be very cautious about issuing any kind of injunction that would block an election from happening and that’s because the dissolution of the legislature is a Crown prerogative . . . and courts have been historically very reluctant to interfere with that.”

Regardless, Urbaniak said the government will likely have to deal with the issue beforehand in order to signal that it does take the question of minority representation seriously.

READ MORE: Acadian group to take Nova Scotia to court over electoral boundary changes

He said the government’s hand could be forced if there is a court application seeking corrections around how the boundaries were redrawn on legal and constitutional grounds.

“Someone could try to get a court to make a statement like that and really more firmly throw the ball into the court of the government and the House of Assembly to deal with it,” he said.

Urbaniak said action by the legislature could occur relatively quickly if all parties agree to hold public consultations around an interim report produced by the 2012 electoral boundaries commission that was rejected by the previous NDP government. He said that report better balanced issues such as minority representation and population growth in areas such as Halifax.

“They would need an enabling bill to get the abbreviated process off the ground, but presumably something like that, if there is a modicum of good will, could happen through all-party agreement,” he said.

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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