The Union of Northern Workers (UNW) targeted the spectre of austerity measures at the GNWT with a pre-election survey that has stirred up controversy in the home stretch to the Nov. 23 vote.
President Todd Parsons told the Journal last week he was disappointed with the response rate to the five questions the UNW sent to all 60 candidates in the Northwest Territories’ 19 ridings.
The questions concerned public service job safety and public-private partnerships (P3s) such as the one that will see a private company build and manage the new Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife.
Two-thirds of candidates received a failing grade from the UNW either for not responding at all, not answering enough questions or answering the first question – Will you oppose any cuts of GNWT staff, including boards and agencies? – with a “no.”
The UNW, which represents about 6,000 employees, about 4,000 of them public servants, published the results and each candidate’s grade at unw.ca/nwt-election-report-card.
Members are worried because with the next territorial budget on the horizon, job cut rumours are circulating.
“It’s not like we’re stirring the pot, the finance minister himself is doing that and he’s not responding,” Parsons said. Miltenberger received an “F” from the UNW for answering “no” to the first question. “The rumours that have been posed by regular MLAs is that every department has been instructed to cut in anticipation of the new budget. Job losses are a real concern and the rumour is out there. We’re dealing with this head on.”
A number of candidates who received an “F” have criticized the survey as out of context and overly simplistic, with false dichotomies forcing candidates to address complex issues with a binary positive or negative response.
Noting she walked the picket line during a CBC lockout in 2005, Yellowknife Centre candidate Julie Green blogged that her “F” grade should not represent a lack of support for the public service.
“What job interview contains only yes or no questions?” Green wrote on her election blog. “When answers are based on speculation rather than information, are they good answers that are worth having? I do not have enough information now to make a promise not to cut the public service in the future. I could have said yes to all the questions to earn an ‘A’ but that wouldn’t be honest.”
Dan Wong, a former UNW Local 1 president running in a five-way race in Yellowknife North, wrote in a letter to the UNW that the restrictive questions were not fair to candidates or the public.
“I will say I find it short-sighted to cut positions and contract out as a means to control budgets, and absolutely oppose such measures,” Wong wrote.
However, there are some situations where positions must be cut, like when federal government or third-party funding for a specific, time-limited project expires. I’m also significantly concerned about the use of P3 projects for the construction of government infrastructure, like hospitals. But I’m not prepared to commit to categorically banning the P3 model. I prefer to evaluate each project on its own merits on a case by case basis, instead of taking an entrenched position before receiving any information.”
Union had to be practical with questions
Parsons said the straightforward questions were created with logistics in mind. The union considered giving each candidate as much as five or 10 lines to answer each question, but that would have led to thousands of words to either edit or publish. They decided the first option was not fair to the candidates, and the second served no use for the membership or members of the general public who would have had to digest it.
Candidates in this year’s election received questionnaires from as many as two dozen special interest groups, including the UNW, the NWT Seniors’ Society, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Status of Women Council and media outlets, including this newspaper. The NWT Chambers of Commerce created a “guide” for candidates and voters outlining its top five priorities for the next assembly.
Parsons did not cut the candidates seeking more leeway in commenting on complex issues much slack. He said the questions were hosted on a common online tool called Survey Monkey, making it easy for any candidate to take part. Moreover, he said candidates who want to become an MLA should be ready to deal with a high volume of requests and documents.
“From what we’re hearing, there are a lot of other groups that are disappointed with the lack of responses, too,” Parsons said. “It’s not just the UNW. I don’t want to pinpoint other groups but surveys put out by social interest groups are not seeing a very good return. I think the UNW response rate seems to be better than the average right now.”
Producing a report card on candidates for MLA each election is written right into the union’s regulations.
“It is a challenge for the union on how to best meet our objectives as an organization,” Parsons said. “When you have 60 potential candidates in 19 separate ridings, it’s complicated when there’s no party politics inasmuch as they don’t have platforms. It’s very challenging (but) candidates are either against these things or not. That’s why it’s easy to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from our perspective. The survey itself wasn’t written for the convenience of the candidates. It was to assist UNW candidates in making the right choice for their next employer.”