Governments that ride their economies like a one-trick pony do so at their peril. For nine years the Harper Conservatives rejected economic diversity in favour of padding the nest for big oil and corporate interests and when the downturn hit in 2008, Canada bled like a stuck pig - and here we are today, struggling.
The same thing happened in the NWT. Will that impact the choosing of a new premier?
NWT citizens will be MIA in the selection of premier as the process unfolds largely behind closed doors over the next two weeks, but hopefully candidates will publicly present platforms charged with new ideas and innovation and invoke energy he/she can bring to the coming four years.
MLAs have been given a plan to use by the last assembly and can buy into it, ignore it or build on it to create their updated vision of the future for the NWT. That transition plan was formulated by a committee of government administrators and five MLAs, but only two of those MLAs were returned to the new government. A plan from the past may be a valuable resource with important information on which to base future decisions, but it also has the potential to encumber the assembly, restricting it to outdated thinking. The MLAs should pay close attention to that, since many are there because change was in the air.
The expectations from the electorate are high.
The last assembly led by Premier Bob McLeod focused on oil and mineral development, much as the Harper government did federally. After the crash in oil prices and the downturn in the global economy, we clearly see that an all-our-eggs-in-one basket approach was flawed. It was also a source of disaffection by the electorate. Central to the purpose and benefit of elections is a process of renewal. We learn from past mistakes and choose a better path. Does that mean Bob McLeod, like Stephen Harper, should be set aside in the search for a leader?
Two other rumoured contenders, Jackson Lafferty, the past deputy premier and Tom Beaulieu who held two different portfolios in the past government, are also interested to be premier. Both were in cabinet so they too have to wear unpopular decisions of the last government, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Sahtu as well as tens of millions of dollars in power rate subsidies with no attendant plan for investing in alternative energy. Lafferty was criticized as Education minister for implementing junior kindergarten in competition with Aboriginal HeadStart programs. Beaulieu was panned for his performance in cabinet, why he was shifted to a different portfolio. McLeod’s very expensive group forays to Texas and China seeking investment in petroleum and resource development were seen as wasteful. Are those positions defensible? Each candidate needs to present a platform that not only addresses such issues, but offers an alternative vision for the future that inspires MLAs and engages the NWT public. That is quite the challenge.
Given it is unlikely the glut of oil will clear markets for at least a decade and demand for new mines will be minimal for at least as long due to struggling economies in China and Europe, perhaps it is time to seek a new vision. Rather than see the downturn as a problem, the NWT could take advantage and develop an entirely new type of economy. Strengthening communities with small scale local developments based on the movement toward green energy and growing food locally should be a no-brainer. Those are not enough by themselves to generate jobs and wealth on the scale needed to foster a robust NWT economy, however, so what else is there? What could work in conjunction with them to provide an overall solution? Can one of the premier candidates offer a compelling vision to fill that space?
Possible choices for premier are few given the large number of new MLAs. The learning curve in assembly procedures, work on various committees and the considerable demands of their constituencies is very challenging. Their first year in office is more about learning the ropes and gaining confidence. Although a few may know enough about the assembly from past lives and have a firm grip on what they plan to achieve, any standout “newbies” are more likely suited to a cabinet post than options for premier. In fact, new blood on cabinet will be essential if the premier is one of the old guard and new directions are to be forged by the government. That leaves only eight veterans to choose from for premier. Which one is the best choice?
No one person can swing the will of 19 partyless MLAs, let alone realign a $4-billion economy, but whoever ends up at the helm must chart a clear course we can all understand and get excited about. Four rudderless years would be a surefire road to ruin.