Clearing the air on consensus

Clearing the air on consensus

Editor’s note: Last week’s Journal editorial was on how the NWT ‘s consensus government election process is a work in progress and the people should have a say in how it evolves. We suggested ways it could be improved - in particular to incorporate a way the new government is challenged, as is done in party politics, forcing the refinement of its platforms and policies, especially in the way the premier is elected. We suggested that would invigorate the process and involve the public more.

We received the following information from an authority on the NWT election process (who did not want their name attributed). It points out flaws in the information in the editorial. This is directly quoted:

  • The process to select a premier allows for each candidate to make a 20-minute speech to the Assembly, in public. It is then followed by an extensive question and answer period where each MLA is entitled to ask each candidate up to three questions. This is not perfect, but it does contrast what you describe as the complete lack of process in your article. I may be naïve, but I would wager that back-room deal-making is a part of every democratic system, even the federal one.
  • Nowhere in Canada is the premier or prime minister elected directly by the people. That may often be the reason why people cast their vote, but not necessarily the only one. Neither Justin Trudeau nor Stephen Harper’s names were on the ballot that you cast (Oct. 19). A process whereby the head of the executive branch of government is elected directly by the people (e.g. the United States or France) is not a nuance. It is a complete shift away from the system of responsible government which has existed in Canada since Confederation. I’m not suggesting it is better or worse. To suggest that it is a potential “improvement” to our system is an extreme understatement. Presidential systems have checks, balances and separation of powers that simply do not exist in the British model. These could be developed, but they are significant changes to our democratic institutions, not adaptations.
  • The premier does not select the cabinet as your article suggests. Members of the Executive Council are appointed by the Legislative Assembly and directly accountable to it. The premier gets one vote, like the remaining members, and cannot shuffle MLAs into or out of cabinet on his/her own initiative. I contend that one of the things rejected by Canadians in the recent federal election was the centralization of power in the prime minister’s office. Having the premier elected directly and giving him/her the power to select their own cabinet would certainly move us in that direction. Conversely, it could result in a genuine type of political inertia that plagues the US when its executive branch is separate from and out of step with its legislative branch.
  • The proposed priority setting process is not quite what you suggest. Prior to the cabinet “presenting” the Assembly with a draft plan, there are a number of important steps. The first is a full-day round table discussion by all 19 MLAs on what the priorities should be. This has happened in the past, but this will be the first time that it will be open to the public, televised and transcribed in Hansard. One would assume that each member will bring to the table what he or she heard at the doorstep during the election. Secondly, there will be a full day of consultations with aboriginal and community government leaders on the proposed priorities. Thirdly, the proposed process involves a structured mid-term review, which has not occurred in the past. Finally, by taking the pen on the drafting, it is argued that cabinet will propose a plan that is both achievable and meaningful. Past plans have been so watered down that they have not served as effective political our accountability instruments.
  • Lastly, the NWT does have a constitution. Not only is it governed by the constitution of Canada and the Charter, but its basic authorities and structure are laid out in both the NWT Act (Canada) and the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act (NWT). These laws do not go into fine detail about how priorities are set or a cabinet appointed. Much of this, as with the federal government and provinces, is left to custom and practice as opposed to constitutional entrenchment.
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