11/29/2012 12:47 EST | Updated 01/29/2013 05:12 EST

Nova Scotia premier will allow fisheries minister to vote against riding changes

HALIFAX - A Nova Scotia cabinet minister will be allowed to vote against legislation that would redraw the province's electoral map, Premier Darrell Dexter said Thursday.

Dexter said Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau can vote his conscience on changes that would see his Shelburne riding cut in half so that his constituents know their voice was heard.

"I know that's an unusual thing for executive council members to be allowed to do, but I think in the circumstances it's appropriate," he said.

Dexter wouldn't say whether all members of his caucus will be required to vote for the changes, but he said he expects they will vote in favour of the new boundaries, which have sparked uproar in some of the affected areas of the province.

He said his government would accept the redrawing of the boundaries that were proposed in a final report by the Nova Scotia Electoral Boundaries Commission.

"We see this as the report of the independent commission. The legislation reflects the commission's report so we will forward the commission's report to the house for a vote."

The report merges four ridings intended to represent the province's black and Acadian populations with other ridings.

Belliveau spoke out against the changes last month, saying his constituents weren't consulted by the commission. That prompted the government's unprecedented move of sending the law amendments committee to Shelburne for two days of public hearings.

During hearings held earlier this month, a majority of the presenters from the riding also opposed the changes.

On Thursday, Belliveau said he was disappointed by how the situation turned out.

"I have been very clear and I will not waver ... and I will be voting against this," he told reporters. "I think this process has failed the people of Shelburne County."

Both the opposition Liberals and Progressive Conservatives said they would vote against the proposed boundary changes.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said his party won't help the government push through changes that don't protect minority rights.

He said the process was tainted when the commission was told to rethink its position after issuing an interim report last June that preserved the ridings designed to represent minorities.

The government said the commission strayed from its mandate by failing to ensure all ridings were within 25 per cent of the average number of voters by riding, which is about 13,000 voters.

"If it had truly been left to the independent commission, minority rights would have been protected," said McNeil.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the province's democracy wasn't served by a process that would see only one party vote in favour of the boundary changes.

"There is no way, in these times, that should be done with the consent with only one majority party, but that is what's happening," Baillie said.

The commission reviews the province's electoral boundaries every 10 years to ensure there is no population disparity. The terms of reference are set by the legislature.

Dexter said in future, the legislature might have to reassess the way it deals with boundaries. Perhaps one change, he said, should be a requirement for public hearings in ridings that are selected as candidates to be redrawn.

"If you have a point of view you should go and express it and that's a lesson that was learned," he said.

Later Thursday, the law amendments committee sent the legislation back to the house for final approval.

The government committee members voted for the move and the opposition members voted against it.