Last week, MLAs voted in favour of a motion that will allow them to ask the federal government permission to extend their current term of office. Specifically, the members of Cabinet, supported by four ordinary MLAs (Groenewegen, Menicoche, Blake and Yakelaya) made the call.
Criticism by the public has been swift and strong, and from MLAs who voted against the motion. The MLAs putting forward this motion, Jane Groenewegen and Michael Miltenberger, rationalized it as a common-sense move. They say that federal, territorial and some municipal elections happening at the same time may confuse and fatigue voters and strain resources. They also say that an extended term will allow for devolution to be implemented more smoothly if the same MLAs have an extra year in office. And finally they argue that in other territories, MLAs can have five-year terms, and some provinces are considering moving their election dates to avoid several elections being held within close timeframes.
But they seem to be forgetting one thing: elections are what gives them their positions, legitimacy and authority – not the Prime Minister or a federal law, and certainly not themselves.
Even if all of what they say is true, the heart of the issue is whether MLAs have the authority to change their own term of office. None of us as working people have the authority to change the length of our employment without our employers’ consent. Once our employment term is up, we must leave. Why is it different for MLAs?
The short answer is that they are doing this because no one can stop them. And if their employer (the people) is annoyed, MLAs will only be disciplined through the voting process after the fact: when MLAs have been in office for a longer time than they were elected for.
The legitimacy of our political system – what makes it lawful and gives it authority – rests on the consent of the voters. What voters gave their support to in the last election was to have an MLA represent them according to the existing laws: a maximum of four years. For the MLAs to seek someone else – namely, Prime Minister Harper – to extend their terms, would mean the MLAs are effectively put there by the Prime Minister. The MLAs will be in office for an extended term because they will be put there by the federal government, not by the people of the Northwest Territories.
To me, this seems to be completely at odds with the mantra that has branded devolution: more Northern control, less interference from Ottawa.
While having an election after four years may somehow inconvenience putting devolution in place (no one has told us how, so it’s a bit of a mystery), the legitimacy of our government rests on having that election within the four-year mandate of this legislature.
And deep down, the MLAs know it.
Watching Cabinet on TV as they stood to vote on the motion, they looked ashamed: hands clasped in front of them, looking down or looking grim. They were caught in a stance of shame rather than of pride. That only one of them, Miltenberger, bothered to speak to the motion was also telling. That Groenewegen attempted to stop Bob Bromley from repeating the critical comments of ordinary citizens in the house was also telling. Premier Bob McLeod had nothing to say about this fundamental breach of democracy, or why he thinks that our MLAs should be effectively appointed by Stephen Harper rather than elected by the people of the Northwest Territories. Surely the leader of this government might have said a few words rather than hide behind silence?
It is hard not to notice that Groenewegen is taking most of the blame for this shameful turn of events rather than the person for whom its successful conclusion will benefit the most: the premier.
Soon it will be Stephen Harper’s and the Conservative government’s moment to reveal their policy regarding the basis of the NWT legislature’s legitimacy. How will Harper gain from extending a legislature’s term this way? We are used to seeing this kind of move – a sitting legislature extending its own term in office or powers by passing a law rather than having an election – in places such as Libya, Zimbabwe or post-Soviet Russia; places which are politically unstable and viewed as having corrupt systems. It stands to reason that our Cabinet would have checked in with Harper before making its motion. Because such a potentially politically risky move would certainly not have been made without some kind of indication from Harper that he will say yes. If it was made without an assurance from Harper first, the MLAs who voted for the motion have left themselves open to the humiliation of his refusal, and to being turfed from office by an angry electorate in October 2015, for they have hung their political futures on the possibility that the electorate will have forgotten all this in two years’ time.
Getting their ‘yes’ from Harper must happen within one year, through a process that will likely keep this issue fresh in the minds of the electorate. If Cabinet and the MLAs supporting the motion don’t get their approval during the fall of 2015, incumbents who voted for this motion will face an election where this issue will likely be front and centre among an electorate that will be a little less trusting than last time.
Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, PhD, is a lifelong Northerner, political anthropologist and the mother of two boys. She lives in Yellowknife.