10/25/2012 02:31 EDT | Updated 12/25/2012 05:12 EST

Opposition in Nova Scotia accuses government of trying to save minister's seat

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter shrugged off Opposition accusations Thursday that his government is interfering with the work of an independent commission to protect a cabinet minister from electoral defeat.

The case involves a bid by the Electoral Boundaries Commission to redraw the province's electoral map to ensure voters are afforded equal representation in the legislative assembly — a process that is carried out every 10 years to reflect population changes.

After the commission submitted its third draft of a new electoral map — following months of wrangling over the rights of minority groups — voters in the district of Shelburne said they were stunned to learn their riding had been cut in half without public consultation.

Dexter said that was unfair.

"People in Shelburne didn't see this coming," Dexter said outside the legislature. "They were told that their riding was going to be kept intact. They didn't get a chance to address that on their own."

On Monday, about 400 people crowded into a high school gym in Barrington, N.S., to complain about the proposed change.

The riding is held by Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau, who was put in the politically awkward position of criticizing the proposed changes in a government bill that was tabled Thursday.

As questions swirled about Belliveau's showdown with his own government, Justice Minister Ross Landry announced that the legislature's law amendments committee would be dispatched to Shelburne to seek public reaction to the proposed changes.

"The people of Shelburne didn't get their say," Landry said outside the legislature before it resumed sitting after its summer break. "We're trying to listen, hear and understand the different perspectives."

Liberal justice critic Michel Samson was quick to accuse Dexter of politicizing the process.

"This is complete damage control," he said outside the legislature. "It's clearly political. With all of the concerns there are in Nova Scotia, (the premier) seems to only have the attention of Shelburne. That's because he's got a cabinet minister who now sees his future in doubt."

For his part, Belliveau said politics had nothing to do with the government's move.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's about the people of Shelburne County having a voice, having an opportunity to be included in the process."

Belliveau cited the commission's terms of reference, which say those who could be affected by the commission's recommendations should be consulted.

"When you're talking about splitting a community that's been there since Confederation, I believe they deserve the courtesy of hearing their voice be heard," he said.

Samson said the unprecedented step of sending the committee to Shelburne was a slight to Acadians who failed in their vocal bid to persuade the commission to protect three so-called minority ridings.

Last month, the commission recommended changes to four ridings set up 20 years ago to provide representation for black and French-speaking residents. The final commission report says the ridings — each of which has an unusually small voting population — should be merged with neighbouring constituencies to ensure electoral fairness.

An election is widely expected within a year.