Show us the money

Show us the money
NWT Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger.Photo: Paul Bannister.

NWT Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger is on his annual tour, seeking input on how the upcoming budget should be formulated. This is your chance to shape government direction and policy.

Unlike Education Minister Jackson Lafferty’s attempt to push through the new junior kindergarten program, Miltenberger knows from his experiences with the Wildlife Act that NWT residents demand to have a say or get very cranky. Credit Justice Thomas Berger for that. He established those expectations during the 1974 Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry. Thanks in part to him, the Northwest Territories, with its style of consensus government and penchant for consultation, is one of the most democratic jurisdictions on the planet.

Make no mistake, the finance minister’s meetings are meant to sell the government’s plans and methodology. A budget is effectively a government’s political and economic manifesto. Miltenberger is a veteran of such meetings and is selling the government’s achievements and plans.

However, Miltenberger proved that he does listen – if enough people demand the same changes. He launched the NWT’s Heritage Fund last year with a contribution of five per cent of royalty revenues from devolution, but he bowed to public pressure exercised during his community budget meetings and increased annual payments five-fold to 25 per cent.

There are several things we think need to be scrutinized in the government’s plans, and perhaps a new direction demanded of Miltenberger.

1. A lot has been made of the campaign to get the federal government to raise the NWT’s borrowing limit, yet projections by the finance department (presented at the meetings) are not optimistic. Few, if any, resource development projects are on the way, in spite of significant efforts to encourage developers to come to the territory in the past few years. In addition, a net loss of NWT residents is forecast. Future revenues will be down. That is no time to be going deeper in debt.

2. Diamonds are not forever, and within a decade the mines around Yellowknife are all scheduled to shut down. What will replace them? Miltenberger is talking about spending $80 million to build a road north toward Bathurst Inlet to encourage resource development in the Slave Geologic Province. But none of the resource developments in the NWT, past or current, came about as a result of any kind of government incentive. The gas fields around Fort Liard and south of Hay River, the diamond mines and the gold mines before them, the ESSO oil wells at Norman Wells – all those lasting resource developments came about because the market prices warranted them and the companies wanted them. Certainly they negotiated some sweetheart government support, but they were going to proceed anyway. Market demand and pricing warranted it. Is a plan for a road to resources, which would add considerably to the territorial debt, a good investment?

3. Miltenberger said they have been considering ways to entice more mine workers who commute from southern Canada to live in the NWT. He said the onerous cost of power is a detractor, and so he is dedicated to reducing those costs. NWT residents will also benefit from that, but shouldn’t it be the other way around? Instead of lowering the cost of living to attract mine workers, the priority should be to lower the cost of living for all NWT residents. Mine workers will then find the NWT a more attractive place to live. It is a matter of perspective. The foremost consideration should be to the people of the NWT, always.

Miltenberger is a good finance minister and the finance department is competent and deserves accolades for managing a difficult job in challenging times. However, their core priority is wrong. They want growth and development. The lot of the people of the NWT is secondary.

Foster stronger communities by developing local economies. Lower the cost of living so the quality of life can improve. That should be their primary concern.

Do that and the NWT will be well positioned to take advantage of resource developments when they do come. Communities will be grounded and strong, and not held hostage to the devastating cycles of boom and bust that characterize the way the NWT economy is designed now.

Come to the meetings and have your say. Make the NWT a better place to live.

Northern Journal

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