Michael Miltenberger is probably his own worst enemy. You can’t fault him for his competence, diligence and reliability, but he does not communicate well, especially during elections.
His monotone delivery and technical savvy may serve him well in the Legislature, but many voters want to be inspired, some even seduced with promises. He insists on being practical, down-to-earth, realistic. No hand-on-your-knee beguiling election-inspired “friendship” that is the domain of many a politician. Plus there is that characteristic ego and his sardonic wit that many don’t get. Some people find him hard to like. Yet many who get to know him are loyal. His is an interesting personality for a politician.
In my 37 years as a journalist, transparency by politicians has come to mean a lot. In different encounters with Michael Miltenberger and our reporters over the years, I don’t recall him ever turning down an interview nor dodging a question. He has always been open and frank about anything to do with his different roles in government or events in his riding. That has been the case even during controversy, when he has been challenged under duress. Only a few politicians I have known have been that forthcoming.
Miltenberger’s performance over time as a senior cabinet minister has been commendable, to the benefit of all NWT residents. He has been the architect of significant legislation and policy. The NWT’s Water Strategy is his and is respected by environmentalists as one of the best of its kind in the country. The much-needed new Wildlife Act is close to completion, after six years of diligent consultation – only to be adjusted to gain the support of a few First Nation groups to become law. In addition, he carried the greatest load of all ministers in the last assembly, with three major portfolios at the end – finance, health and environment along with being Deputy Premier – a prodigious load and an amazing undertaking for one individual. He was an advocate of devolution and that lost him votes, but he had the courage and conviction to stand up for what he believed was best.
In the past I have said, as sort of a critical compliment, that Miltenberger is good for the territory but not so good in his own riding. In fairness, his riding has never really supported him. Peter Martselos as mayor worked actively against him for over a decade, wanting himself to be MLA. Even the current town council has met with him only once in a year and has asked for little. Why is a new arena, a new court house, a fix for the slide zone and cheap power from the Taltson Dam not on their shopping list? Why has he not been supported and pushed by his constituency?
Any MLA needs that. No matter who is elected to office, it is up to constituents to see that they perform.
The 64 km of remaining unpaved road into Fort Smith is not a hill that he should die on. Defending the massive hospital renovation budget when the alternative was a glorified nursing station served by centralized doctors in Hay River was huge for Fort Smith. Things like that and seniors’ housing can easily be eroded away by other MLAs in an assembly where everyone is grabbing for what the other has. The Legislature is a tough place with limited money and that is about to get tighter. Getting something committed is one thing, but defending it is even harder.
I did not support Michael Miltenberger as Thebacha MLA for his first three terms. My vote was available to whoever I figured was the best candidate. Michael had his problems. The ongoing dispute with Hay River MLA Jane Groenewegen limited the prospect of that community and Fort Smith working together. I also felt he lacked vision. I want to know from all leaders where Fort Smith is going, what promise the future holds for it and what they are going to do about it.
In the last election with Peter Martselos as the main challenger, I considered Martselos standing in the NWT Legislature advocating on behalf of Fort Smith. Would he do better than Miltenberger? Not a chance. The fragile government-based Fort Smith economy is all about sustainability – preventing what exists from eroding while working patiently to add to it.
Miltenberger, especially with his considerable skills in the backrooms, was far and away the best choice for the role. At that point I reassessed. Gone was the edgy, ego-centric Michael of old. He had learned some lessons along the way; softened, grown wiser.
Fort Smith has 2,500 people – a tiny place with a mayor and council and three Aboriginal groups, each with their own government. On top of that it has its own MLA. All that power and potential, yet the community cannot unite and work toward common goals. All three candidates in the current election are well known. All have held public office for many years and have either performed well or had problems. There are good records, bad ones, and some have made grievous errors. It should not be hard to decide. Which one is honest, principled, open and capable and best able to lead Thebacha Riding into the future? It is up to you to choose. Do it well.