Passing the electorate test for premier

Passing the electorate test for premier
NWT Premier Bob McLeod.File photo.

Canadians chose “change” in our recent federal election, and the results were dramatic. There was little change in the NWT election however. A few previous members chose not to run and a few others were defeated. Otherwise things remain pretty much the same. Notable in that sameness is the re-selection of Bob McLeod as Premier.

McLeod was elected by a majority of the people in his riding to be a member of the Legislative Assembly; but it was the pragmatic choice of just nine or more of the 19 MLAs (assuming he voted for himself) in “selecting” him as premier. You may argue it is a moot point, that he was “elected” by those nine or more MLAs in that process, and that they represent all the people of the NWT; but we prefer to say it is a point of principle and that the people of the NWT did not actively elect a premier. Participation by the electorate is critical when defining how a democratic government should work, and is legitimized.

Aside from that principle, practically speaking, the government of the NWT is lacking defined goals and objectives that the people had a role in shaping, because of the lack of a leadership election process involving the electorate. With no campaign for leader where the public had any role or influence, the goals and objectives of the government from here on are pretty much what McLeod feels are important, influenced by his cabinet with marginal input from “ordinary” MLAs.

Liberals occupy the political centre and move around within it. Conventional wisdom has it they “campaign from the left but govern from the right.” That would be true of McLeod, if he needed to campaign. He did not have to make promises about inspired social reforms, dealing with mental health, the need for proper childcare or global warming in order to get elected. He only has to govern, which gives him license. McLeod is a ‘blue’ Liberal. His competence was honed in his long career as a government administrator. He is an able, reputable politician and leader. He is not a ‘vision guy.’ His approach to governing extends from his bureaucratic roots, reflected in his stay-the-course style.

McLeod has said solving land claims is a priority in getting the NWT economy unstuck, and with a friendly, engaged government in Ottawa, pretty much everyone will agree that makes sense. Land claims will be the work of negotiators and bureaucrats – work best done without the involvement of politicians. McLeod’s government should be working on other things, like a new energy strategy, building stronger community economies or lessening food insecurity by promoting local agriculture. Or what else? If there had been an election for premier involving the electorate, such things would have been important points of discussion in the campaign.

Consider that McLeod recently said one of his priorities is to encourage drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. That is a contentious issue – likely even more so than fracking, which was supported by his government in the last assembly but ran into considerable public opposition. Would drilling in the Arctic Ocean have passed the test of the electorate in a campaign?

Many Canadians – including many who elected the new federal government – want our country to lead the way in preventing climate change by actively disengaging our economy from dependence on fossil fuels. The new economy and jobs coming with it, they say, should be based on alternative forms of  energy. Should the NWT want to predicate its future economy on drilling for oil? That does not even consider the very frightening threat of a well blowout fouling the pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean for decades, even hundreds of years to come. It does not consider the extraordinary challenges of dealing with the impacts of well blowouts in cold water, in extreme cold weather and the unpredictable element of unstoppable sea ice pushed by winter winds.

The National Energy Board (NEB) ruled in 2011 (a year after the 87-day struggle to drill a relief well when the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon rig blowout leaked 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico) that a requirement for drilling in the Arctic Ocean is for companies to be able to drill a relief well “within the same season.” That could mean months would pass with oil pouring into the Arctic Ocean before a blowout could be contained.

Is support for drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean as a government priority something the people of the NWT would endorse, especially in the pressure-cooker environment of an election? Perhaps, but we will never know.

Again, this is not about McLeod, the man, rather about the process. He may be the ideal leader for this time. Or not. Proving it to the people in a proper election for premier is the missing key.

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