Every time the writ is dropped for a new territorial election, people in the NWT start talking about how consensus government does not work. Then the advocates of party politics start chirping.
Party politics offers dynamics that makes the democratic process work – essential elements lacking in the NWT’s version of consensus government.
Here’s the basics of how it works:
Each party attracts like-minded people and as a group, each enunciates a vision that depicts their goals and objectives. Along with that vision each group has to have a plan to execute it. They also need people – foremost individuals with particular strengths and appeals attractive to the electorate – who can deliver the goods laid out in their plan. At the top of each of those groups is one individual who stands out above the rest – the leader.
When we vote in party politics we are selecting at each of those levels, but not necessarily in that order. We may choose the vision with the goals and objectives that suit our own. We could go with the group that has the team to get the job done, or the one that is best led by someone who inspires us. That is in fact the essence of Canada’s democracy. Most of us “ordinary people” are not experts on how to govern. We may not even know of a vision or have particular goals and objectives. We just want someone – a group, and particularly one with an extraordinary leader who inspires us – to take care of business well and provide quality of life.
None of that exists in the NWT in its current form of consensus government, and all residents of the territory are worse off for it. There is no process to create a vision for the future. A vision is just kind of out there. There is no mechanism to formulate an implementation plan for the vision. A plan is eventually cobbled together as MLAs go about the day to day of governing.
Something else missing is that intangible and mysterious dynamic in which humans, when forced with a challenge, rise above and excel. Like an athlete who performs their personal best under the pressure and hype of an Olympic event, elections foster excellence and candidates and parties rise, resolve, refine and evolve. By the end of the election process they are often different and, hopefully, better as a result of being challenged.
But not in the NWT. Individual candidates in their riding, yes, but without a party system nothing like that happens at the territorial level. Not only are no competitive visions put out there to choose from, the process that would push the owner of each one to improve and excel is missing. No visions, no plans, and particularly no refined superlative versions of what each evolves into under pressure.
There is one last large flaw with consensus government in the NWT – the people have no say in the selection of the leader. It could be said the NWT is not a true democracy. This particularly rankles when the premier, who is selected by the other 18 members of government, is acclaimed in his or her own riding. That, in fact, happened with the previous NWT premier. The people of the NWT are excluded from having any say in that person’s selection.
It is not all bad. The ten or more MLAs who make up the majority select the one among them who they feel is best to lead. Since they have been voted in by ordinary people it could be said they have the proxies of the rest of the population. It is not perfect, and it may not be democratic, but it is far better than a dictatorship.
All this does not mean consensus government in the NWT is a rudderless ship. It is still the case that some of the very best people available in NWT society are selected and get together to govern. They do that to the best of their ability and there are imperatives out there – like the need for hospitals, schools, roads and bridges – that drive the agendas in the governing process, forcing the cobbling together of something of a common vision and the formulation of a seat-of-the-pants plan of execution. But that is very limited and lacklustre – far from achieving true potential.
As a result, the system is flawed. It lacks purpose. It promotes division. It is inefficient. It depends too much on the bureaucracy. As we all know, left to its own devices, a bureaucracy will simply grow more – which makes it even less efficient. Thus the on-going cycles of retraction and expansion. (The inevitable round of position cutting and cost reductions is due again soon!).
Look at the way the Deh Cho bridge process was conceived and executed, or the current conundrum over devolution from the federal government – both committed to in the dying months of an assembly and left to the bureaucracy to implement.
The NWT does not have sufficient population to support party politics. That is a practical reality. Additionally many First Nation citizens of the NWT do not want party politics. What is attractive about consensus government is that it can be run without the rancor and combative negativity of party politics. Can be.
Consensus government in the NWT has never been fully defined and is still in the process of evolution, although that undertaking has stalled and stagnated. It still has the opportunity to mature into a system that offers all the benefits of party politics, minus the downsides. The way to do that is address the flaws of the current system one at a time. That must be done.