I sense a bit of bewilderment at Premier Bob McLeod’s 11th hour announcement (literally – he emailed the news to Yellowknifer reporter Simon Whitehouse at 11:09 p.m., Thursday night) that he won’t be seeking re-election after three terms in the legislative assembly.
Few people are surprised the 67-year-old, two-term premier won’t be making a plea for three. Getting a second term was extraordinary enough. No other MLA has accomplished the feat since the legislative assembly took control of the territorial government in 1979. So really McLeod has nothing left to prove and likely little to gain by running yet again.
That said, the premier’s seeming indifference to the question of political succession has struck some people as a little weird.
Imagine this were Alberta in the lead up to their election last spring. Could you picture Rachel Notley letting the clock run out on her political career after dispatching a six-word note to a reporter getting ready for bed: “I will not be running, thanks”?
It would be unthinkable.
But to me his recalcitrance on this issue says a lot more about the manner in which premiers are selected in this territory than it does about Bob McLeod.
It’s not like you voted for him to be your premier. He’s not there because you liked his ideas or the direction he wanted to take the territory. And it’s not like he owes you his premiership either.
He can thank voters in Yellowknife South for putting him in the legislative assembly but the premiership? He owes that to MLAs meeting behind closed doors.
If you bother voting in territorial elections, and many of you don’t, it’s because you liked one person running for MLA better than the other people running against them. That’s it.
It’s not to say ideology and ideas didn’t factor into your vote. It usually does, but what can a candidate in the Northwest Territories promise other than to be for something or against it?
There is no program to vote for, no political party to punish because they are doing something stupid. What government we get after Oct. 1 is anybody’s guess. Will the next premier wheel around the country flipping flapjacks with Doug Ford and Jason Kenney? Maybe.
What we do know is what voters decide in Nanukput has nothing to do with the choice voters make in Yellowknife South. Or Kam Lake, Thebacha, Monfwi or anywhere.
This is not to make light of McLeod’s accomplishments, of which there are many. It’s to point out the deficiencies in our political system. McLeod brought the territory devolution over land and resources in 2014 but there is still unfinished business. The democratic spirit remains weak in this territory.
Politicians at the territorial level like to pretend consensus government is a uniquely Northern institution but aside from its very colonial roots (see Sir Frederick Haultain), it is deficient for one very important reason: it gives voters no actual say in where the government is heading. The 18th assembly gave itself a mandate letter comprised of 230 legislative commitments, but not a single one of them was tested with voters.
There are two ways the territory can remedy this: bring in party politics which nobody in the territory seems to like, or as Nunavut’s former premier, Paul Quassa, has suggested, allow all voters to choose a premier, not unlike voting in a mayor and council. The premier sets the agenda, the MLAs vote on it.
No system is perfect but right now the NWT premier is the MLAs’ premier, not the people’s.
Having a premier, elected on a platform approved by voters, would lend the territory a sense of unity it does not enjoy today. And it would be so much harder for the premier to leave without saying “goodbye.”