MLAs likely to ask for one more year, if permitted

MLAs likely to ask for one more year, if permitted
Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger addresses media after winning in the 2011 territorial election.Paul Bannister.

Though other options will be on the table for discussion if given the flexibility to change their election date, MLAs in the Northwest Territories will likely be voting on the originally proposed one-year extension when the issue arises again in the legislature.

Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger, who seconded the motion earlier this month to ask the federal government for the authority to extend the length of the 17th Legislative Assembly to avoid overlap with federal and municipal elections, said ideally he would like to see an autumn election in 2016.

“I would like to avoid a winter election if it were my own personal choice,” he said. “In all my years here and all the elections I’ve been through, we’ve tried different times and (what) made October 2016 attractive was that fall is the time that most folks up here have settled on after years of trial and error as the best time to have these elections.”

He added that an extension of one year would also create fewer complications for the next assembly.

“The issue of a year would coincide with our fixed election dates, so the 18th Assembly would just pick it up and wouldn’t miss a step. They’d get four years; they wouldn’t get three-and-a-half years or four-and-a-half years,” he said. “That was the initial thought, for the ease and convenience of having that four-year fixed election date, that we’d be able to adjust this one time and be able to go back to the regular.”

Motion receives public backlash

Though the motion originally asked for a delayed election to take place in October 2016, one year later than next year’s scheduled election, it was amended to ask only for the flexibility to change the date to another unspecified time after residents expressed concerns that other options had been overlooked.

The amendment wasn’t enough to quell the resulting backlash, however, as both residents and some regular MLAs quickly expressed suspicion that the move was being done for selfish reasons on the part of the government.

In hindsight, Miltenberger said it was probably the wrong move to specify a delayed election date in the motion rather than simply ask for the authority to change the date, a power held by every other jurisdiction in Canada.

If granted the authority to amend the date, Miltenberger said there will be a discussion among MLAs, but emphasized that terms would not be shortened, as requested by an online petition that is demanding an early election in response to the motion.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any plan to go early and cut into our already squished agenda, but yes there will be definitely be a discussion, if we get the authority, about what are the options for proceeding,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll have a wide-ranging discussion.”

Talks had taken place with feds

Miltenberger said the federal government has been aware of the GNWT’s concerns since last July when the issue first arose in conversation, and that a possible change to the NWT Act to allow a new election date was one of the many pieces talked about in conjunction with devolution.

“There was nothing formal; we just got the authority to make the formal request last week. But were there initial exploratory discussions on what are our options? Yes,” he said.

“This was one of the many issues that came out with devolution as we were moving forward looking at all these dates, so I mean there’s no collusion any more than there was on trying to sort out all the 1,001 details on devolution and Bill C-15.”

MLAs to make call for the public

Though a variety of residents have called the move by MLAs to stretch their mandate beyond the four years for which they were elected undemocratic, Miltenberger said MLAs are elected to make decisions on behalf of Northerners.

“If we have a couple hundred people complain and hit the brakes because of it, that’s a tough way to run a government,” he said. “If we would have responded to the people who yelled the loudest, we never would have done devolution either; we never would have got the Wildlife Act; we never would have got midwifery.”

The motion was presented without formal public consultation, leaving no way of telling how many people in the NWT are in favour or opposed, though MLAs voted in favour, 11-7.

While it has been mentioned that the term extension would also facilitate the devolution transfer set for Apr. 1, Miltenberger said that was never the reason behind the motion, which was influenced by similar decisions by the Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island governments to move their elections.

“The prime reason was and still is the overlap of elections. If it wasn’t for the overlap of elections, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he said.

Miltenberger said that MLAs would likely have also been criticized for not dealing with the issue ahead of time if problems were to arise during concurrent elections.

“It would be irresponsible for us to just stand by and not try to make sure we were prepared,” he said.

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