Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
My name is Bruce Fitch and I'm the interim leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. I am very pleased to be here this evening and to take part in this meeting.
I appreciate this opportunity to make some remarks before the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.
Just like when you have a good book, sometimes you like to turn to the last page to see what the outcome will be. I'll take the suspense away, just so there are no surprises, and declare up front that I will be speaking in favour of the status quo. But if in fact the committee and Parliament decide to make significant changes to the way Canadians elect their members, I believe a referendum is required, because it's the people who own democracy. The politicians don't own democracy.
My position on these matters comes from a long history of working with and for the people of New Brunswick, especially in my little riding, ma circonscription, of Riverview. I've been elected four times as a member of the Legislative Assembly. Previous to that, I was mayor for two terms and a councillor for three terms before that.
In New Brunswick, our voting system is very similar to the national model of first past the post. There have been variations in my lifetime, including multi-member ridings, but other than the occasional boundary change or shift in the number of MLAs, the current system has been stable for the past 40 years, and for the most part the people seem to be happy with that system.
This is a important point to make, because in New Brunswick over the past 40 years there have been some very interesting results where the democratic expression, in terms of the percentage of votes for parties, has been wildly and disproportionately translated into very different seat allocations.
Just to name a few examples, in 1987 the McKenna Liberals took 60% of the vote but 100% of the seats in the legislature; in 2006 the Graham Liberals received fewer votes overall than premier Bernard Lord, but they still formed a majority government; and recently, in 2014, the Green Party elected its first member to the New Brunswick legislature with 25,000 votes provincially, while the NDP elected no members with 50,000 votes province-wide.
Despite all these variants, basically there has been no one complaining about the voting system in New Brunswick, no mass protests in front of the legislature, and no one has challenged the legitimacy of the government. On a personal level, I know from going door to door over the last number of elections and over the last 27 years of being an elected official that no one has raised this as a concern, outside of the occasional discussion on the doorstep. The concerns are the economy, jobs, health care, education, and seniors care.
You asked the presenters to the committee to consider seven questions before appearing, and I would like to boil that down to this: why do you think you need change, or not?
While I see areas that could be improved, the fact of the matter is that the people I represent are satisfied with the current system, warts and all. They like it because it's simple to understand, it's accessible, and they even have an option not to vote because all the choices are competent and decent—although, of course, as politicians we always encourage people to vote. But for that reason I would not be in favour of forcing people to vote under a mandatory voting system. It's a freedom of choice that people exercise.
They feel that way because they know their local MP or MLA in our area and they are represented by that person. They notice that over time the results of the elections have become more inclusive, more representative of women, minority communities, and diversity. People like that.
Overall they see the results of the current system as fair because all parties, all candidates, have an equal chance to succeed. Very similar to life in general, the results are not always perfect and are sometimes a little different from what was expected, but there is a foundation built on equality of opportunity.
At the end of the day, I work for these same people who are relatively satisfied with the current system. It would seem more than just a little disingenuous to try to imagine a number of different reasons we should change the way that I and my colleagues get hired every four years and to change that system without the approval of the people who are doing the hiring—basically, the bosses of the elected officials.
Specific to this committee and for your deliberations, please keep the first-past-the-post system. The people in New Brunswick like it. If the government chooses to move ahead with significant changes because it's popular, it's an ill-conceived election promise, it's something to do to distract from other issues, then whatever the new system that is proposed must be ratified by the people in a clear and concise referendum.
We commissioned a poll in New Brunswick a short while ago when I was leader of the opposition because the provincial government in New Brunswick was also considering some of the changes in the voting system. It was interesting to see that 77% of respondents said that New Brunswickers should be consulted first and a referendum should be held before any changes were made in the system. Again, that's a question through a pollster, but we had 77%, which is a very clear majority. That majority I don't think should be ignored. These results align clearly with other national polls, which have been conducted over the last six months. Again, I'm not the only New Brunswicker here; one of your members, my friend Matt who's here today, is from Fredericton.
Finally, you also may want to know what we think about online voting. I think in general in every election cycle there are always some administrative improvements in improving accessibility to the voting stations, but accessibility and ease of voting can't trump the faith in the system itself. During the last provincial election a new administrative system, involving electronic vote tabulation machines, was rolled out across the province of New Brunswick. This was, of course, intended to allow the results to be known instantaneously, right away, right at the close of the polls. We were told that within 15 minutes we'd have our results. Well, as luck would have it, on election night there was a glitch and the results weren't known until the next day.
Subsequent recounts proved that the machines were accurate. The perception left with the voters was that this new technology cannot be trusted to deliver immediate results. Before people rush into online voting, especially on a big scale, there should be a cautionary note to make sure that it works, and works better than some of the ways it has been done in the past.
Overall, Mr. Chairman, I do think it's always a good thing to look at our voting system every so often, continue to modernize it to take advantage of technology, or improve service levels and accessibility, but when major changes are proposed, such as the fundamental way in which ballots are structured and counted, that requires the approval of the people.
I think you'll find that several referendums and plebiscites have proven in the past that despite the flaws of the first-past-the-post system, the people see it as legitimate, simple to understand, and accountable. They will want us to stick up for what has served their country very well over the past 150 years. As I mentioned, it's the people who own democracy, not the politicians. That's why the people should be asked if the way they hire their politicians should be changed.
Thank you very much.