Most Northerners like the idea of consensus in the NWT. Few are passionate about party politics.
Consensus-style assemblies make for a healthier workplace than Ottawa and the provinces but is it good government for the people of the NWT?
Not when we have healing and housing deficits in the regions and communities, lacking the two essential conditions for students to get the best education they can.
Do we blame the 6,200 or so civil servants for not doing their job with a $2.2 billion annual budget? No, elected ministers set direction and are responsible for results. Ministers praise GNWT staff so we must conclude ministerial orders are being followed.
The other possibility is that consensus isn’t working properly at the top.
Luckily, a true test of consensus government is coming.
On March 8, Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong made a motion permitting NWT Housing to forgive the rental arrears of seniors and residential school survivors paying for what is too often substandard housing. Wages and pensions are garnished, says Monfwi, causing struggling elders much anguish. The housing arrears total $13 million, one half per cent of the $2.2 billion budget.
Obviously, you can’t talk about reconciliation and act like a collection agency targeting elders and residential school survivors, so this must stop if we are to be trusted by our people.
Nine MLAs voted in support of the motion. Six cabinet ministers abstained from the vote, not saying a word against the motion.
Supporting Weyallon Armstrong were Caitlin Cleveland (Kam Lake), Jackie Jacobson (Nunakput), Rylund Johnson (Yellowknife North), Frieda Martselos (Thebacha), Katrina Nokleby (Great Slave), Kevin O’Reilly (Frame Lake), Lesa Semmler (Inuvik Twin Lakes) and Mr. Rocky Simpson (Hay River South).
This unity of purpose among the Dene, Metis, Inuvialuit, and YK MLAs is a core value of consensus. Cabinet must respond with a firm commitment then a plan to carry it out.
Should present assembly practice stand in the way of the motion, we have to ask if that’s by parliamentary rules or consensus rules? Majority rules for both.
The Legislative Assembly’s definition of consensus states - “The 11 Regular Members also hold the balance of power, as only seven Cabinet Ministers are elected. A Cabinet that ignores the direction favored by the majority soon runs into trouble.”
Should the cabinet, after consulting staff, decide not to carry out the motion as directed by the majority of MLAs, the result would be a different kind of government style, not consensus. It would be a coalition government of cabinet and the senior civil servants, unchanged in structure from the 1960s when half the council was appointed and the other half elected.
As one who wants to run as an MLA in the next election, I have a favour to ask of the ordinary MLAs: Show us what unity and true consensus can do, the power of it.
Strengthening consensus government would be a lasting legacy for the 19th Assembly. Time to make history.
—Bruce Valpy is a longtime Northerner living in Yellowknife and former publisher/CEO of NNSL Media. He has declared his candidacy to run for MLA in the Oct. 3, 2023 territorial election. His platform can be found at NWT2023.ca.