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Know where your legislators stand

Since 2006, approximately 1500 votes for second and third readings of bills occurred in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. Of these, only 12 were recorded in the Hansard. The rest? They were voice votes, meaning there is no record of how each member or party voted.

Third-year political science student Michael Kennedy wants this to come to an end.

Kennedy launched a blog, knowhowtheyvote.wordpress.com, to lobby provincial MLAs to be more accountable to the public. He says it’s easy to change the process: any two MLAs can call for a recorded vote when the speaker calls the vote, and then the result is noted in the Hansard, the name for the record of the meeting.

Kennedy emailed 49 MLAs, and the speaker, Charlie Parker, to encourage them to hold more recorded votes. He also contacted the candidates from last week’s byelections. Newly elected Antigonish MLA Maurice Smith did not respond to the email, and Inverness MLA Allan Thompson said he’d look into it if he wins. As for those members elected in June, only Dartmouth East MLA Andrew Younger, and Parker responded.

Younger says anything to increase the accountability of elected representatives is a good thing, but he feels the change will be hard to bring about.

He says that to permanently change the voting process in the house, the government must call the Committee on Assembly Matters, which has not met in years.

Younger says he “would like to see the legislature move to an electronic system, which would allow a paperless workflow and would also make electronic, recorded, voting a matter of regular practice.”
It would also reduce their carbon footprint.

This is a change he successfully pushed for when he was a Halifax city councillor.

Kennedy is a member of the Dal-King’s campus Conservatives, but says that the issue of recording votes is one that stretches across party lines. He’s not asking anyone to change their vote, he just wants it written down for others to see.

Nova Scotia elected its first House of Assembly in 1758 – the first in the British Empire outside of England. Back then, and until at least 1848, there is an extensive record of votes. We can look back in the Hansard and see how Joseph Howe, or James Boyle Uniacke voted on many issues, from university tuition, to land expropriation, to taxation, and more.

Since 1848, with the advent of party politics, voting has changed, and fewer votes have been recorded.
It doesn’t need to be that way, Kennedy argues.

“The democratic deficit in Nova Scotia is growing,” he says. “With every unrecorded vote in the legislature, our MLAs get farther and farther away from our scrutiny.”

“Choosing not to record votes is choosing not to be transparent and accountable to the constituents that you represent.”

He says it’s a simple change that will help democracy in this province.

Paul McEwan, Speaker of the House from 1993 to 1996 wrote a letter to the Cape Breton Post on Oct. 19 to respond to Kennedy’s points arguing for recorded votes in a previous letter.

McEwan wrote that recorded votes could take a half an hour away from the duties of the House.

“The normal procedure of a voice vote, which takes maybe 10 seconds, is more conducive to keeping the House moving along,” he wrote.

Kennedy counters that over an hour each day is dedicated to member statements on things like barbecues in each member’s constituency, essentially a chance for each member to say they made it to LegTV that day. He says this could be trimmed by a few minutes to make up for the added time it takes to do a recorded vote.

In Ottawa, recorded votes often take place after question period, or at another time that is indicated several days in advance. Members will show up, vote on as many bills as was agreed to in advance, and then return to their other business. This removes the need to stop House business and to ring the bells for an hour before each vote, thereby alleviating some concerns.

Kennedy is looking for supporters of his campaign to write letters and talk to MLAs. He hopes that the campaign will increase accountability, and maybe even reform the House of Assembly’s daily proceedings.

Ben Wedge and Michael Kennedy are friends and fellow members of the Dalhousie-King’s Campus Conservatives.

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