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‘Reticent to punish a colleague’; examining MLA removal from the House

Is potentially removing an MLA who’s unpopular with colleagues a fair exercise of the democratic process?
MLA can be removed from their seat in the legislative assembly by a vote from other MLAs, through an investigation by the integrity commissioner or if the MLA becomes ineligible as a candidate for a criminal conviction, said assembly spokesperson Nicole Bonnell. Photo courtesy of the Legislative Assembly of the NWT

Is potentially removing an MLA who is unpopular with colleagues a fair exercise of the democratic process?

That question is on the minds of NWT residents amid accusations against Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn, who allegedly broke his self-isolation rules in April and potentially spread COVID-19 to more people than just a family member.

RELATED REPORTING: No comment on potential investigation into MLA’s role in COVID-19 spread

Residents took to social and news media calling for his resignation or removal, even before he was ousted from his role as chair of the standing committee on accountability and oversight. The committee didn’t clarify why he was removed, or how the vote on his ouster went down.

RELATED REPORTING: MLA Norn has gone ‘too far’ says Yellowknife business leader

RELATED REPORTING: Steve Norn removed as chair of Accountability and Oversight Committee of MLAs

If Norn was to be removed from his MLA seat, it would take one of three routes under legislative assembly regulations, explained assembly spokesperson Nicole Bonnell.

In the first route, MLAs would have to give notice of a motion to expel a member from the assembly. The motion would undergo debate and be voted on. If a majority of MLAs pass the motion, the member would be expelled and his seat declared vacant.

“This is an exceptional and rarely used power,” said Bonnell.

The NWT’s commissioner would subsequently instruct the chief electoral officer to prepare for an election to fill the vacancy, unless it occurs within nine months before the legislative assembly is due to expire.

More than six weeks after Norn allegedly broke isolation protocols, there has been no motion from MLAs calling for his removal.

The second option is through a complaint to the integrity commissioner, who would investigate the complaint and refer the issue to the sole adjudicator.

From there, penalties can range from a fine to removal from office, and the adjudicator would have to recommend to the assembly that the MLA’s seat be declared vacant. MLAs would vote to either accept or reject the recommendation.

That process could still be initiated in Norn’s case, after Yellowknife North MLA and caucus chair Rylund Johnson said on May 4 he would file a complaint about Norn to David Jones, the NWT integrity commissioner.

RELATED REPORTING: Steve Norn won’t quit

Jones confirmed the complaint was received and said he’s waiting for a response from Norn, expected shortly.

The third route of removal is if an MLA becomes ineligible as a candidate during or after an election. That would involve an MLA being convicted of an offence under the Elections and Plebiscites Act, or being imprisoned in a correctional institute.

Reactions to Norn’s behaviour have been polarized, and he still has supporters, such as members of the Deninu Ku’e First Nation (DKFN) in Fort Resolution. In a letter to Premier Caroline Cochrane and MLAs on May 4, DKFN Chief Louis Balsillie said the community supports Norn, and Balsillie made clear that he’s opposed to Norn’s removal.

If an MLA is still popular with constituents, but unpopular with his colleagues, is it democratic to be removed from office by an assembly vote?

For political commentator and former Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart, the NWT’s regulations on MLA removal are consistent with Westminster parliamentary democratic norms.

“Do I think they’re effective? I do, it gives parliament the ability to expel members for any reason but reserves that power for only the most serious cases,” he said.

What would change the balance in a situation where an MLA loses support among constituents is recall legislation, which in Canada only exists in British Columbia.

“Four-year terms are already short time horizons for public policy outcomes and decision-making. On top of that, politicians are primarily motivated by getting reelected anyway,” Testart said. “So placing the additional threat of recall impacts risk-taking and decision-making generally. Politicians are less likely to push for major changes to democratic systems or government policies when unpopular choices can lead to a recall effort against them.

“Likewise, recalls have a threshold of support required but need no further justification than that – meaning a recall can happen not because an officeholder did anything problematic but just because people don’t like them personally, or as the subject of a politically-motivated campaign.”

The lack of recall legislation in the NWT gives voters little influence over the politicians who represent them, said David Wasylciw, founder of OpenNWT, an organization that promotes government transparency.

“The most you can do (now) is call your MLA and say, ‘This should happen.’ If you look at an average MLA, they’re elected by constituents. What’s really important is what the people in that constituency have to say about it.”

In the case of removing an MLA by vote, the power rests with other MLAs who don’t represent that constituency, a problem that could be remedied with recall mechanisms, Wasylciw said.

A further limitation to the NWT removal legislation is it leaves open the possibility that an expelled MLA could be reelected and return to the assembly.

“Anyone is eligible to run so long as they’re not in jail. You could be democratically elected again. From the point of view of the optics of it, where MLAs say they can’t condone their colleague doing something and they were reelected it would look very awkward and it would be hard to work together,” Wasylciw said.

While Wasylciw thinks it’s important that tools such as MLA removal exist as a check on behaviour, the difficult practical consequences are an indication why the tools are rarely used.

“In general, MLAs are so reticent to punish a colleague,” he said. “People say something isn’t good but they need each other for votes or to get legislation passed. When you’re a small group of people working together, it tends to balance off the policing.”

At the legislative assembly, Norn has indicated he will be absent from the current sitting which lasts until June 4, said Bonnell.