The People’s Alliance: Where to go from 2014?

Being the fifth out of five parties is not an enviable position to be in for the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick. It’s been six years since the party was first formed and it is interesting to note the direction it has taken in those six years. Formed seemingly as a protest party it has developed nicely into a fringe party in the province, slowly eating away at the popular support of the bigger parties. But where do these votes come from – and where will they come from in the future?

Despite garnering only 2.14% of popular support in the 2014 election there is a bit more going on than that. Running a slim slate of 18 candidates (in 49 ridings) the party received 5.88% of popular support in ridings it ran in. The highest  received was leader Kris Austin’s 28.48% in Fredericton-Grand Lake. Due to the joys of vote-splitting within the first-past the-post electoral method, Austin lost his riding by a mere 25 votes behind the PCs Pam Lynch. Liberal Sheri Shannon finished 47 votes behind Austin, meaning that all three finished within a percentage point of each other.

Other PANB candidates saw varying degrees of success. Former Liberal Leroy Armstrong received 10.39% of the vote in Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins, good for third behind the PCs and Liberals. Wes Gullison received 8.61% in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin, again good for third in that riding. Three other PANB candidates received over 5% popular support in their ridings. Compare this to 2010’s results where only three candidates received over 5% in their ridings (with Austin topping at 19.95%) and the improvement is obvious.

panb-top-five-results-2010-2014

The overall improvement is a popular vote total increasing from 4,389 in 2010 to 7,964 in 2014, a total improvement of 1.18% to 2.14%. What is even more important to note is where these votes come from, and in what ridings the PANB does well in. All of the ridings are similar, and all of the areas where they succeed in receiving votes are similar as well.

In the Albert riding, where Bill Brewer received 7.66% of the total vote, these votes were gleaned from the more rural areas of the riding. Hillsborough voted 11.58% for PANB, and 12.20% in Riverside-Albert. This is compared to sub-4% in the more urban Riverview. LeRoy Armstrong’s results in Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins are similar. His total of 10.39% is buffeted by 12.84% received in areas like Bloomfield, Passekeag, and Moosehorn Creek. Armstrong was second in voting in Apohaqui and a consistent third place through Roachville and Penobsquis. However, in more metro Sussex, he lost ground to the NDP and Liberals, the latter of which he would push for second in some rural areas of the riding.

 

Similar numbers can be seen in Joyce Wright in Charlotte-Campobello and, of course, with leader Kris Austin in Fredericton-Grand Lake – where Austin easily swept Chipman and Minto before losing support as the riding moved towards Fredericton. Gullison’s numbersare aided by a 28% showing (and 2nd place) in Upper Miramichi, which evaporates to just above 2% in Baie-Ste-Anne.

The ridings where the PANB received more than 5% of the total vote are the following:

  • Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin
  • Albert
  • Sussex-Fundy-St.Martins
  • Charlotte-Campobello 
  • Fredericton-Grand Lake 
  • Carleton-York

None of these ridings are within the Big Three cities of New Brunswick, although a few are on their borders. These ridings are mostly rural and encompass some medium-sized centres, most notably Sussex and St. Stephen.

So what does this all mean? Simply put, the PANB does well in Angolophone, rural New Brunswick. This isn’t an overly shocking revelation. For the PANB, they’re a simple, easy, and rather straightforward party with simple, easy, and relatable policy points. They do have some lofty goals that I think would be difficult to implement (such as free voting for MLAs in the Legislature) but I think some of their policies are well-intentioned moving forward.

With the future of rural NB very much up in the air (as noted on this blog frequently), and a population increasingly becoming urbanized, are the PANB going to be the party that represents the dwindling rural population of the province? Perhaps. For the PANB to increase their support they’ll need the rural population for sure, but will also need to break in a bit more in more urban areas. Of course, the PANB would benefit from a larger slate as well, and would do well with candidates in Gagetown-Petitcodiac and New Maryland-Sunbury. The issue of Francophone voters will have to be resolved over time: PANB candidates in Kent North and Kent South received 1.44% and 1.96% respectively in 2014.

In 2010 PANB only fielded 14 candidates in 55 ridings (25% of ridings). In 2014 that number increased to 18 candidates in 49 ridings (37%). For 2018, i’d imagine a good goal for them to have would be having candidates in at least half of the province’s ridings. That means finding seven more candidates. The PANB fared decently well in some ridings in 2010 for which they had no candidates in for 2014, including areas like Miramichi, Saint John and the Fundy Isles. Expanding in areas like suburban Fredericton and filling in the remainder of the rural anglophone ridings would likely see them poke above the 10,000 vote barrier with their current trending.

What would help the PANB immensely would be Austin winning his riding in 2018, similar to the Greens breaking through in Fredericton-South in 2014 with David Coon. Having that exposure and ability to have an outlet on the public stage would be huge for the party in legitimizing itself. A lot of voters in NB think that the PANB are an anti-Francophone party and are keen to place their votes elsewhere. Having their leader in the Legislature would legitimize them immensely and help with their exposure moving forward. Exposure to the public is key, as well as not looking like a temporary fixture. The PANB are moving there slowly but surely, which will require patience and a keen eye for policy points. So far the party and Austin have done well in that regard.

In terms of other parties, a lot depends on the future of the PC Party Leadership race. The PANB are surely hoping a candidate like Monica Barley comes out as the winner. Having other hopefuls win, like Jake Stewart or Mike Allen, would almost certainly eat into PANB’s rural vote and provide for a big roadblock for their increased exposure. Having Barley win wouldn’t affect their goal areas as much, it has to be said.

The Liberal Government’s policies have come across varyingly in different areas of the province. One area that should be noted is St. Stephen, where the Liberals were pushing for the alteration/reduction of services to the hospital in that town, leading to protest. PANB has garnered over 6% of the vote in Charlotte-Campobello the past two elections and one has to think that number will rise as more and more pressure is applied to the rural area from Fredericton and the larger urban centres. The PANB must be watching the situation closely, just as leader Kris Austin was with the Potash Mine closure in Sussex earlier on in the Liberal mandate. These are prime areas for the PANB to make some serious gains in 2018.

panb-municip-results-2014

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On Electoral Reform

Yesterday the New Brunswick government announced potential reforms to the electoral system in the province. These changes are wide and deep, looking at potential changes to the voting age, changes to donation limits, and how New Brunswickers vote; either online or changing the entire electoral voting procedure as a whole.

Electoral reform has been a sticky subject in Canada as of late with the Federal Government proposing similar changes at the national level. The opposition Conservatives feel that a referendum is needed to provide enough public support to implement these changes. The argument, at least from the ruling Liberals, is that because they ran in the 2015 election on the promise of changing the electoral system, and subsequently gained a majority government, that this is support enough for the government to enact these changes.

The Federal Liberals have also had to jump through hoops regarding how the electoral reform committee is composed and also are facing difficulties regarding their timelines for implementing a full range of changes in time for the next federal election in 2019.

The New Brunswick proposal faces similar issues. No committee has been struck as of yet and this committee is supposed to be publishing a final report on these proposals in January 2017. For anyone who has had any experience working with government at any level should know this is an ambitious target and it seems doubtoful it will be met accordingly. Even if it is met it would still have to be put through the legislature and all of the due diligence that comes with that.

In the event the Liberals are able to pass the electoral reform legislation in the Spring of 2017 it leaves the government and Elections NB with roughly 12 months to implement changes in time for the next provincial election in the fall of 2018.

What’s more important than timelines of course is what these proposed changes are! So let’s take a look:

The Good:

Changing donation limits
The most important of these reforms is the possibility of reform or (hopefully) complete removal of corporate and union donations to political parties or independent candidates. Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and the Federal government have restricted and removed corporations and unions from donating and thus holding influence over candidates. It’s a smart move for a province as unique as New Brunswick with such large industry for such a small population. Removing these donations removes possible foul play and undemocratic practices that generally floats around with private and union forces affecting politics and really forces parties to look for donations from citizens – the people actually voting for them.

Allowing for permanent residents to vote
Permanent residents are people who live in the province much the same as anyone else. There have been calls recently for permanent residents to gain the vote in municipal campaigns which was not mentioned in this discussion paper. Still, it looks like progress.

Fixed election dates
This proposal is pretty straightforward and has already been implemented at the federal level. A fixed date for an election every four years provides for stability and reliability, particularly for organizations such as Elections NB which needs to make preparations for elections. This does not mean elections cannot be held more frequently than four years (no confidence votes, snap elections) but does mean that they’re set in stone and must be held within a four-year time frame.

The Unlikely:

Online/Internet voting
Internet voting poses a number of difficulties which were previously found in Quebec when the Chief Electoral Officer in 2005 found issues with online voting mechanisms. A lack of transparency, accountability, ability to verify voters, and costs are among many of the issues surrounding online voting or the creation of online voting kiosks. As of yet, none of the costs for this have been outlined, so it remains to be seen what the financial implications would be.

“The technical audits and tests helped to determine that electronic voting systems are exposed to many risks since they have limited or no formal protection and security measures, thus making them vulnerable to technological attacks. In addition, the systems are thus exposed to major service or network defects and breakdowns.” – Elections Quebec, 2006

I see no issue in making things easier for voters to cast their vote but I have seen nothing proposed by the government in terms of a serious plan on this to offer any reasonable yea or nay at this point. Perhaps the January Report will glean some light on this.

Anything > FPTP Voting
There’s no doubt that first-past-the-post is a wildly inefficient system of voting. It’s the simplest, and it works, and that’s about it. The major issue revolves around convincing an electorate that it would be wise to tinker with it, and so far four of those votes have been rejected in various provinces across the country in the past twenty years. As of yet there hasn’t been much support or momentum for a change in voting system in New Brunswick despite reports developed over a decade ago recommending them.

Is FPTP a flawed voting system? Sure. Is it the easiest to understand? Absolutely. Do I think New Brunswickers would support a change in the way they vote if it was put to a referendum? Not a chance.

The proposed alternatives are outlined very well in the discussion paper and it provides good graphics and explanations of how they work. I am supportive of the current one-member-per-riding system with a ranked ballot with the victor requiring 50% of the vote to be elected. Other alternatives, like party lists, get into the murky waters of party officials not tied by area or region ending up in the legislature and opens up the door to fiddling…and not the kind on the roof.

[I’m also supportive of the province further cutting down on the number of ridings in the province from the current 49 to a more reasonable 45 or 41, but that recommendation is nowhere to be found]

The Bad:

Lowering voting age
Although an admirable and understandable goal I don’t see much from a policy perspective to support this. The negatives, such as allowing those to vote who may not have a full understanding of what their vote is going towards, far outweigh the positives on this file. It would be wiser for the government to provide for more education on civics and allow interest to swell from that.

It’s clear that lowering the voter age is an attempt to increase voter turnout in elections but lowering it may very well have the opposite effect. Allowing a whole new segment of the electorate to vote is great but if they vote at levels below the average they’ll only serve to drag down turnout further. There’s nothing that I can find that shows that 16 and 17 year olds are kicking down the door to be heard….the discussion paper mentions that there will be fewer and fewer of them in the coming years. No growth in this demographic.

What government should be aware of is that turnout in elections, although important, isn’t the be-all, end-all measuring stick of how interested an electorate is in the political process. Turnouts rise and fall based on elections and can swing for many different reasons. Elections with higher turnouts generally have a specific issue or decisions revolving around them that leads to more people heading to the polls. An example of this would be the 2010 election which reversed a trend in NB of successive falling turnouts. Why did turnout rise in this election? It likely had to do with the incumbent Graham Liberals seeking to sell NB Power. Big ticket issues like this generally drive turnout up. NB either doesn’t have these issues come up during elections or political parties are too afraid to step on toes to bring them up in the first place.

The idea that government can create a more “effective” legislature by making it easier for underrepresented groups to become elected to the legislature is laughable at best. Having elected members from more diverse backgrounds doesn’t provide for a more effective legislature –  it simply provides for a more representative legislature (and that is always up for interpretation). The issues surrounding the legislature would still persist whether the entire legislature was made up of women or visible minorities or not. Many issues remain, like the lack of sitting days, overall lack of decorum, and many others.

There are many ingrained issues surrounding the legislature and political culture in New Brunswick as a whole. Creating reforms for electoral reform with the goal of fixing these issues points the finger at the electorate as the cause for these issues – this is simply untrue. New Brunswick’s voters haven’t driven the province to economic stagnation. New Brunswick’s voters haven’t restricted legislature sitting hours this session. These issues rest with the elected members of the legislature and the ministers and premier of the province. Surely efficiencies can be found within the political system rather than pointing the finger at voters.

New Brunswick voters do, and can, have the power to change who sits in the legislature after all.

It remains to be seen if all of these proposed changes will make it to the (presumably very rushed) final report in January but from what I can see I would be particularly surprised if all of them were implemented in time for 2018. Why is the government deciding now to push this issue? The Liberals did mention some parts of this in their 2014 Election Campaign [“Investigating means to improve participation in democracy, such as preferential ballots and online voting.”, pg. 37] but made no mention of changing the entire electoral process.

If that’s the goal why not tie a referendum vote onto the general election vote in 2018? It would be simple, a good election platform for them to build off, and would negate the negative press of a government trying to force reforms on an electorate that didn’t really ask for them. Perhaps they think they would lose such a vote.

A referendum tied to the general election in 2018 would almost certainly raise voter turnout – isn’t that what’s being sought for in the end?

Urban and Suburban Voting Patterns and Trends

The past decade has been a turbulent one for sitting Governments in New Brunswick. In three consecutive elections in 2006, 2010, and 2014 the incumbent government has lost. The 2014 election continued this trend by ushering out the Alward PC Government and voting in the Gallant Liberal Government. There were various reasons for why this occurred – this article will examine urban and suburban centres of the province, analyzing how much the urban and suburban vote is increasing as a percentage of the total provincial vote.

New Brunswick’s three largest municipalities are Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John. Surrounding these cities are suburbs which are not within the municipal boundaries of these larger cities. For this article I have separated suburb voting from city voting and at times have also merged them to create something called “Metropolitan Voting”. The metropolitan areas break down as follows:

Greater Fredericton: Fredericton, Hanwell, Lincoln, Oromocto, New Maryland
Greater Moncton: Dieppe, Moncton, Riverview
Greater Saint John: Grand Bay-Westfield, Quispamsis, Rothesay, Saint John

Similar to proposals and recommendations found in the Finn Report on Local Governance (2009) which emphasized creating regional municipalities combining urban cities and their suburban municipal partners I have combined the two to create a voting bloc. There are voting trends within these municipalities, of course, as well as within their own metropolitan areas.

Official voting turnout dropped by nearly five percentage points between the 2010 and 2014 elections. Turnout in the Metropolitan areas were as follows:

Province of New Brunswick 2010 – 69.56%
Province of New Brunswick 2014 – 64.65%

Greater Fredericton 2010 – 64.39%
Greater Fredericton 2014 – 65.72%

Greater Moncton 2010 – 65.31%
Greater Moncton 2014 – 59.45%

Greater Saint John 2010 – 60.88%
Greater Saint John 2014 – 56.55%

Without spending too much time dwelling on why turnout decreased (varying pertinent issues, incumbent governments, policies, etc.) I will instead examine the change in the raw number of votes. New Brunswick’s demographics are slowly shifting away from rural voters to urban and suburban based voters. New Brunswick lags behind other provinces in this regard but it nonetheless is still happening (and will speed up as rural areas become older). This can be seen in the recent redistribution of provincial ridings in 2012 & 2013 where the overall number of ridings decreased from 55 for the 2010 Election to 49 in the 2014 Election. Northern New Brunswick lost the most ridings as a percentage of total seats as their demographic change has warranted it, whereas Southeastern New Brunswick, an area of growth, saw very little change in their ridings (losing 0.5 of a riding).

As a result of this the urban and suburban areas (“Metropolitan Areas”) have increased their share of ridings, and therefore influence in the legislature and government, as their demographic might has increased. In the 2010 Election the Metropolitan Areas accounted for the following percentages of total votes cast in the Province:
Greater Fredericton – 8.84%
Greater Moncton – 13.38%
Greater Saint John – 11.83%
Total Combined – 34.06%

Here are the same numbers for 2014:
Greater Fredericton – 9.83%
Greater Moncton – 13.77%
Greater Saint John – 11.71%
Total Combined – 35.31%

Overall the Metro Areas combined saw a 1.25% increase in their share of total votes cast in a four year span. This increase includes a lower turnout percentage (63.47% in 2010 to 60.02%) in the three combined, meaning that their total number of electors as a percentage of provincial electors increased by a larger margin than their vote totals. We see a large gain in Metro Fredericton with modest gains in Moncton and Saint John. Although the City of Saint John saw its percentage go down the Metro area of the City still increased thanks to a population, and therefore a voter, increase in Quispamsis.

Metropolitan Area Voting Patterns
Metropolitan Voting Area figures for 2010 and 2014 Provincial Elections

Within the metropolitan areas the numbers become more obvious. Dieppe, New Brunswick’s fastest growing city, has increased from having roughly 13,000 electors (eligible voters) in 2003 to having nearly 19,000 in 2014. Because New Brunswick’s ridings average roughly 11,500/12,000 electors Dieppe’s influence has gone from the equivalent of one riding to one and a half (and nearly two by 2018) ridings in the span of a decade.

In terms of voting power Dieppe’s share of votes cast in Provincial elections has increased from 2.28% in 2003 to 3.32% in 2014. This doesn’t appear like a large increase until you compare it to other municipalities across the province:

Dieppe 2.28% – 2003 – 1.84% Bathurst
Dieppe 2.66% – 2006 – 1.91% Bathurst
Dieppe 3.03% – 2010 – 1.92% Bathurst
Dieppe 3.32% – 2014 – 1.62% Bathurst

 

You can do this for a number of different municipalities going in opposite directions. In the 2014 election Hanwell and Lincoln had more combined voters than Campbellton for the first time in the province’s history. Campbellton has had the biggest drop of any large municipality in the province in terms of voting power:
Campbellton – 1.82% – 1999
Campbellton – 1.24% – 2003
Campbellton – 1.27% – 2006
Campbellton – 1.19% – 2010
Campbellton – 0.96% – 2014

That’s Campbellton’s voting power in the province cut in half in 15 years, and a raw drop in voters from 7,185 in 1999 to 3,564 in 2014. Demographic trends mean that these numbers will continue to decrease for Campbellton and other municipalities not connected to the larger Metropolitan Areas.

Suburban and other Metro Voting Patterns
Although no mention of them was made i’ve included party performance in each municipality with no additional comment.

What’s most obvious is that New Brunswick’s suburbs of major cities are carrying the most growth in population and that means an increase in total voters. The suburbs of Dieppe, Grand Bay-Westfield, Hanwell, Lincoln, New Maryland, Oromocto, Rothesay, and Quispamsis accounted for 8.35% of total votes cast in the 2010 election. Four years later this figure increased to 9.97%. In raw numbers that is an increase from 31,100 voters to 37,066 voters despite total voter turnout decreasing.

To make things simpler, the total number of eligible voters in New Brunswick’s suburbs increased from 52,068 in 2010 to 57,867 in 2014. With most parts of the province stalling on population growth, and dropping in many rural areas, the suburbs are increasing their clout as a voting bloc in the province.