Finance minister resignation leaves NWT hanging

Finance minister resignation leaves NWT hanging
NWT Finance minister Michael Miltenberger says discussions about raising the territory's borrowing limit will have to restart with his new federal counterpart.File photo.

NWT Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger had expected a response from Canada on his request for a raised debt ceiling of $1 billion by next month.

That was until last Tuesday, when federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stepped down after eight years in the position.

Now, Miltenberger wonders what will happen with the territory’s request for an increased federal borrowing limit – a prize on which hang several massive legacy infrastructure projects, from highways to hydro transmission lines.

“While we wish him well, we hadn’t concluded this piece of unfinished business that now is going to have to wait for the new minister,” Miltenberger shared with The Journal following Tuesday’s announcement.

“The finish line was in sight. We were pretty well at the finish line; we were going to get it done. Now we just have to work through a new minister…These things happen in politics, and now we have to adjust.”

Former Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was appointed the new head of Finance on Wednesday during a private ceremony marking the small cabinet shuffle that has seen Greg Rickford take Oliver’s old portfolio and MP Ed Holder step into cabinet as minister of Science to replace Rickford.

Miltenberger said conversations will have to be re-started with Oliver along with the new political staff he will be bringing with him to the position.

“He’s going to be a very busy man in the next few days, but we’re going to be following up very quickly here with his office to get in line to have a personal discussion just to talk about the issues,” he said. “We’re trying to keep as active on this as possible.”

He said he looks forward to building a relationship with Oliver over the coming weeks and months and is optimistic moving forward.

“He’s a very approachable fellow and hardworking guy and I’m looking forward to the same kind of quality relationship that I had with Minister Flaherty.”

Miltenberger said Flaherty had been supportive of an increased borrowing limit, and that the federal government understands a raised debt ceiling is “absolutely critical” to the GNWT’s ability to grow and make infrastructure investments.

Currently, the borrowing limit for the GNWT is capped at $800 million and territorial legislation requires at least half the cost of infrastructure projects to be paid for out of the territory’s operating surplus, which limits how much the government can spend.

Miltenberger hopes the federal bureaucracy will remain in favour of keeping the request a priority during the ministerial transition, though he does expect delays.

“It’s going to be a big learning curve. Mr. Flaherty’s been a fixture – one of the longest serving finance ministers in the country ever – so he’s got a huge amount of corporate knowledge. His successor’s going to have to come in and try to pick up the operation with all its complexity at a dead run,” Miltenberger said.

“So we will work with them and see how fast we can get this done. This is a big issue for us, so we’re going to be on it as soon as we can.”

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