Where's the party in NWT politics?
Last year, Kieran Testart tried to amend the Northwest Territories’ Elections Act to let MLAs register with political parties. He was the only vote out of 19 in favour. Undeterred, the Kam Lake representative made plans to run his re-election bid this fall alongside a slate of other candidates under a Liberal Democratic banner. That plan also fell apart, quashed by what he calls “campaigns of disinformation and intimidation.”
“People were getting phone calls that they should stay away from this,” he says. “There are people who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.”
It all sounds a bit clandestine, but maybe not that hard to believe in the NWT, where the debate about consensus government has cropped up every election cycle for the past four decades. In all that time, very little has changed. This is no territory for party politics.
But as the NWT grows in power post-devolution and the stakes of accountability are higher, the government is going to need more rigorous opposition to hold it in check. The critics of consensus government know this. Its defenders know this. There’s still no consensus about consensus government in the NWT. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that something needs to change.
Here’s how it all works right now: MLAs in the Northwest Territories are independents. The government’s agenda isn’t set until after it forms, which means no promises made by candidates on the campaign trail can definitively be upheld once they get into office. Post-election, the winning 19 MLAs choose from amongst their numbers a premier and cabinet ministers. Campaign speeches and closed-door meetings preface the secret ballot vote. Someone who has won their MLA seat simply by being the only person in the riding gunning for the job can suddenly be promoted to premier.
It’s what happened to Bob McLeod after the current premier was re-elected to his second term by acclamation. Simply put, the most important political voice in the territory can hold power thanks to just nine votes. The new government creates its mandate and asks the remaining MLAs—regular members, they’re called—for input. Cabinet takes its seat on one side of the room. The 11 regular members sit on the other. The speaker keeps order.
As they retain a majority in the House, regular members are supposed to hold the government to account. But cabinet is bound by solidarity when it comes time to vote. There’s no such requirement on the other side of the room. When one side has seven votes in hand and all the tools—all the favor-granting and wish-fulfillment abilities—to get the remaining votes needed to pass legislation, that’s not communal decision-making, says Testart. The goal becomes getting along to get ahead.
It’s how Glen Abernethy and Wally Schumann survived two non-confidence votes last year. Abernethy was under attack after an auditor general’s report showed children in the territory’s care were worse off now than four years ago before the health minister took office. Schumann was facing demotion for his handling of a barge cancellation, which stranded communities in NWT and Nunavut without essential cargo. Both ministers wound up keeping their portfolios and facing no repercussions for their poor job performance after a handful of regular members sided with cabinet (four for Ab- Abernethy; five for Schumann).
Testart says the unofficial caucus of regular members had the votes to pass those non-confidence motions. But on the floor, people changed their minds. All committee meetings happened in-camera, so the full story is impossible to know. There’s no public record of vote totals for the premier's election either. In-camera is used liberally at the legislature.
It’s all in an attempt to minimize the perception of conflict, says Testart.
“That screams of a huge problem,” he says. Members need to be able to criticize government for the system to survive. Otherwise, the NWT is a one-party state with no real scrutiny from elected members. “That is a troubling future that, it seems, many of our current cabinet would like to see.”
For half a century the NWT was governed by a commissioner and council of civil servants, appointed and residing in Ottawa.
Since those days it's been a slow and limited introduction of elected members against a gradual withdrawal of appointed civil servants, says Tim Mercer, clerk at the Legislative Assembly.
“There was never a sort of grand meeting of the grandmothers and grandfathers of the NWT to say this is what we want.”
Mercer’s job is to explain how the NWT’s government works. Officially, he doesn’t have an opinion on party politics versus consensus government. But he knows what he’s seen.
“Working together, I think, honestly results in better legislation,” he says. “I’m convinced of it and I see it happen every day.”
Consensus government also better reflects the values of the NWT, adds Mercer. The territory has a distaste for confrontation, a preference for decentralized power, and a belief that the best decisions come from respectful dialogue. There is no warring opposition here waiting to discredit, embarrass, and defeat the government. The ingrained, adversarial nature of southern parties run counter to NWT politics. Or so he claims.
The shadow of partisan politics has always existed underfoot, though never to much success. No territorial candidate who publicly claimed a party affiliation has ever won, and plenty have tried. The Western Arctic NDP ran several candidates in 1999 and 2003. A group of Yellowknife business leaders also tried—and failed—to found a right-learning party in 2003. An aborted plan to run a slate of Liberal candidates for the 2015 territorial election ended with Testart, former president of the NWT Liberal Association, dropping out of the federal election to run for MLA in Kam Lake.
Frankly, it’s a Yellowknife concern, says Cory Vanthuyne. The MLA for Yellowknife North says the people in NWT’s smaller communities are proud of consensus government. If anything, he adds, the rest of Canada should take a page from the North. Regular members put forward 25 amendments on the territory’s last mandate. Collaboration like that doesn’t happen down south, even within parties. Ask Jody Wilson- Raybould and Jane Philpott about it.
“One only has to go look at the news on a nightly basis to see the divisiveness that party politics is creating,” says Vanthuyne.
But consensus isn’t all sunshine and roses. As Mercer notes in a 2015 paper, “Insults have been uttered, coffee cups have been thrown.” The GNWT almost fell in 2009 when former premier Floyd Roland faced a non-confidence vote after a secret affair with a legislative clerk. The current 18th Assembly has had three non-confidence votes levied against members (none succeeded).
Don Jaque has watched this debate rage for 40 years as publisher of Fort Smith’s now-defunct Northern Journal. Recently, Jaque (who’s also an Up Here Business columnist) wrote an opinion piece for Northern News Service Ltd. attacking NWT Premier Bob McLeod’s pancake photo-op at the Calgary Stampede. [Note: Jaque announced his own candidacy for MLA two weeks after being interviewed for this article. Up Here had no advanced knowledge he was planning to run.]
Flanked by Conservative premiers from across Canada, McLeod spoke out against the Trudeau government’s carbon tax. He was offering his own partisan opinions, but acting in the role of NWT’s premier. Kevin O’Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, told the Legislative Assembly that McLeod’s actions “came as a total surprise” and were a significant breach of consensus protocols. McLeod brushed aside those remarks.
“Here we have a democracy where the government pretty much does what it wants and the ministers are governed by the democracy and the people don’t know about it because they’re not involved,” says Jaque. “It’s kind of a closed box and it’s troubling.”
Even so, Jaque still believes in consensus government. Partisan politics wouldn’t work with the NWT’s small population and isn’t keeping with Dene tradition, he says. Consensus government has lots of potential. It’s just the way the NWT applies it that’s lacking.
For starters, the public should have a vote in who gets to be premier, says Jaque. Vanthuyne, previously a two-term city councilor for Yellowknife, would also like to see the NWT’s budget process moved out from in-camera meetings and into public debate. Testart wants regular members to establish their own caucus rules.
It’s a conversation all three territories are having. Former Nunavut premier and Aggu MLA Paul Quassa recently called for direct elections to determine that territory’s premiership. The newly-appointed Yukon Electoral Reform Commission (YERC), meanwhile, will spend the next several months researching how to improve a government system that’s been partisan for 40 years.
“There’s that saying that democracy dies in darkness,” says YERC chair Jessica Lott Thompson. “Shining a light on our democratic systems and asking hard questions about why they work the way they do is a sign of a really healthy democracy.”
Mercer believes NWT can make smaller changes to course-correct the current system, rather than the “fairly irreversible decision” to bring in political parties.
But if partisan politics comes with risks, it also brings opportunity. Parties can spell out a vision for government before the election and communicate it effectively. Voters can judge a sitting government on those promises once elected, and opposition parties can hold a government’s feet to the fire. Governing parties can also use their power to pass unpopular but necessary legislation. The GST is a perfect example, says Mercer. Universally hated at the time of its introduction by the Mulroney government in 1991, now there is “no credible academic or student of policy who would say that was not the right policy for Canada.”
The machinery of a party is also useful in developing and backing new political voices. Most independent candidates tend to be older men with a career to their name, money in their bank accounts and community popularity subsidizing their campaign. It’s worth noting there are only two women MLAs in the territory right now; one fewer than the all-time record of three.
Both systems have their benefits. Ultimately, it’s about what works best for the people of the Northwest Territories. Ironically, political reform could be more likely in a consensus system than under partisan politics. The territory’s history shows a slow but steady progression of electoral changes. Parties, in contrast, can promise sweeping overhauls but—as the Trudeau government has shown—there’s no guarantee that electoral reform will be enacted.
“There are a lot of really smart, politically astute people in the NWT,” says Jaque. “We can figure this out on our own, but we need to get together and talk about it.”
Nothing is stopping the conversation but the consensus needed to make it happen.