Change with substance is rarely easy, or fast. Until 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan were created, the Northwest Territories was vast, stretching from the Yukon to the Atlantic.
It was governed by an elected council – the definition of responsible government. That year, however, the Commissioner’s office was created and filled by a southern government administrator. By 1921 the genesis of the NWT Legislative Assembly we are familiar with, a four-member board of southern appointees, had joined the Commissioner. Over the following decades the board gradually grew in number and improved its Northern representation.
The first Northern representative joined in 1947, by 1966, southerners were outnumbered.
It took three-quarters of a century of leadership appointed and imposed by Ottawa for Northerners to gain the right to vote. It need not take that long to reforge consensus government, which is to the NWT as healthcare is to Canada, helping define and colour a unique identity as frontier-dwellers, into something more responsive.
NWT residents are governed by the constitution of Canada and the Charter of Rights, but the authority and structure of government are laid out in the NWT Act (Canada) and the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act (NWT). There has never been a discussion with the people involved, on how NWT elections should take place.
By the time this issue of the Northern Journal hits the streets, judicial recounts in three ridings will be complete and all 19 MLAs will officially be considered elected. The next step in what is being touted as a more open and more transparent transition process is the selection of the premier and cabinet ministers. Elected MLAs are already “jockeying for position” and sharing with each other – but no one else – who they think should form the next cabinet.
Consensus government can be incredibly effective as long as the members believe in and apply its principles and tenets, which is essentially about “working together, collaboration, finding common ground and working with that,” one Yellowknife MLA told the Journal last week.
“Things do have to evolve. We’ve done things a certain way for a number of years. It can’t hurt to try (something else).”
Asked whether he would let his name stand for premier, another MLA-elect dodged the question, but offered insight into the kind of person who should.
“The Northwest Territories is a very diverse part of Canada and it’s important we have a premier who understands that diversity and can represent the entire NWT and priorities and needs of all Northerners adequately,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for in a premier, also one that respects the choice my constituents have made by electing me and my platform and will work with me to implement my platform as an agenda of the government.”
He observed that NWT voters are not comfortable with how the government is chosen, and that other options should be explored with an eye to regaining confidence among voters that the assembly is accountable.
No one is well served by a secret process. Going through a month-long election campaign in the public eye then moving the selection of the executive council to a backroom is like having the finish of the Kentucky Derby in a tunnel with horses and jockeys hidden from view, then asking all those betters in the stands to trust the results they are given.
In the process to select a premier, each candidate can make a 20-minute speech to the Assembly, followed by a question-and-answer period. Each MLA is entitled to ask candidates up to three questions. That exercise is open to the public and broadcast on television, but that is the extent of citizen involvement, a virtual one-way street. After the premier is selected, members of the Executive Council are appointed by the Legislative Assembly.
Some members of the last assembly mused that throwing back the curtain and exposing who each MLA supports for cabinet, speaker or premier could cause grudges and friction, inhibiting the assembly from operating efficiently once the dust has settled.
Here is a suggestion: What if the premier and cabinet were elected by the people in a second public ballot? Why not remove the tunnel from the racetrack and trust the electorate to select who will be in power for four years, a feat that anywhere else in Canada with the exception of Nunavut takes a majority government win.
Maybe the process is already optimized, but the discussion is worth having, and any discussion worth having is worth having with the body politic involved. Northerners should have their say – a conference on governance is long overdue.