During this election season, I’ve often heard the term “consensus government” thrown around by aspiring MLAs, journalists and commentators alike.
It seems to be taken at face value that our government system requires MLAs to set priorities and make decisions together, working through issues as equals in the interest of reaching general agreement on solutions to the important issues that affect our lives. This is simply not true.
What we have with the GNWT is a non-partisan system, in that we don’t have any political parties. But the absence of political parties does not make it a consensus government. Our MLAs do not sit together around the decision-making table.
Rather, we have a premier and cabinet comprising seven MLAs that effectively make all decisions. Sure, they may consult with the regular MLAs on various matters, but ultimately the premier and cabinet can take or leave any advice received. They maintain solidarity, in that they operate as a unit and vote as a block. They conduct their business largely in secret, shielded from the eyes and questions of other MLAs and the public. And they have access to the complete resources of the GNWT to support them – legal, administrative, policy expertise, and so forth.
The regular MLAs are at a complete disadvantage. They are kept in the dark on many premier and cabinet discussions, having to fight it out in the legislative assembly to gain access to information. They have next to no resources with which to consider and advance ideas and solutions. They are not organized and rarely pull collectively in the same direction.
Former premier Bob McLeod said it most clearly: “All we need is cabinet plus three.” Though premier and cabinet are only a minority seven of 19 MLAs, history has shown that it is relatively easy to get the necessary three votes from regular MLAs to achieve a majority vote on any given item before the legislature.
It is common practice to garner regular MLA votes by promises of riding investments: a school that needs repairs, an energy project that needs a boost or a wellness project that is underfunded. It is hard for any regular MLA to refuse such overtures, given their primary responsibility is to the constituents that elected them in their riding – not to any ‘unofficial opposition’ that the regular MLAs collectively could be if they got themselves organized and properly resourced.
So we have a GNWT where premier and cabinet hold all the cards. The regular MLAs play along, but the deck is stacked against them.
We’d have to reform how the legislature works if we truly wanted a consensus government. We can look to any municipal council or Indigenous government in the territory for better examples of consensus approaches. At any city or hamlet council, mayor and councillors sit as equal decision makers, with the mayor serving as a facilitator of discussion.
The same is true for most Indigenous governments in the territory, where chiefs or presidents share equal power with their councillors or directors, and general agreement is sought for decisions. In these cases, all elected officials share the same access to personnel and resources to inform their decisions.
If we wanted our GNWT to be similar, it would take a ton of work to reform our legislature. There may be no appetite for this. To be sure, there are probably more pressing matters than legislative reform in front of us – the housing crisis and a shrinking economy, to name a couple. But at the very least, we need to make what we have work better.
As a start, our regular MLAs need to get better organized and resourced. Increasing their collective access to legislative staff that provide political advice and research policy solutions would be a small but effective tweak. Second, regular MLAs should be engaged much earlier in the development of critical pieces of legislation, especially the annual territorial budget. Right now, many of these come to the regular MLAs in the legislative assembly as pretty much a done deal.
Finally, cabinet’s ability to simply veto standing committee recommendations should be reigned in. Standing committees are perhaps the most important place where regular MLAs can voice their opinion in an informed manner, and at this time, cabinet can simply ignore to what any standing committee has to say.
I think a lot of us are proud to say we have a consensus government through the GNWT. It makes us seem unique and “above the fray” of party politics that can divide people more than they unite. But saying we have a consensus government doesn’t make it so – we must act like it.