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Will public versus private sector be a defining question of this election?

So what will this election be all about?
The GNWT and its 6,000-some employees provide an important bulwark against instability and economic disruption. But it’s also a club with benefits only its members enjoy. NNSL file photo

So what will this election be all about?

I ask a variation of this question every time the territorial election signs begin to sprout, and yet an answer never seems to work itself into public consciousness until after the ballots are counted. Local issues abound, of course, but what is the overarching question that will define this territorial election?

Consensus government doesn’t tend to make a great platform for “big” issues. The absence of political parties means few platforms and polices put in front of voters by candidates have an actual chance of being adopted.

Candidates tell their constituents what they stand for and what policies they believe should be taken up by government, but no MLA-hopeful can credibly tell voters what the government will do should they be elected. There are 18 other members who may have other ideas. All the horse-trading and policy direction takes place AFTER the election when MLAs meet behind closed doors to choose a premier, speaker and cabinet.

But that doesn’t mean the territory’s 19 constituencies never occasionally cosmically align to answer a central question.

Last election, the old boys club that dominated territorial politics since the dawn of responsible government in 1979 was clearly the ballot question, whether the candidates recognized it or not. Election 2019 witnessed the defeat of seven incumbents and the election of 11 new MLAs – seven of them women. This followed a similar yet less thorough shakeup in 2015.

One senses the shakeup is not quite over. This election will be the first since Covid and with this year’s summer of wildfires still fresh in voters’ minds, MLA incumbents will surely be judged on the government’s performance. This is the time to take credit for the wins and run for cover when somebody needs blaming.

One thing these unprecedented events exposed was the undeniable divide that exists between the private and public sectors in this territory. The GNWT and its 6,000-some employees provide an important bulwark against instability and economic disruption. But it’s also a club with benefits only its members enjoy.

This was the reality for hundreds of store, restaurant and other small business workers waiting for EI or their $750 income disruption cheques from the GNWT, that in some cases didn’t arrive until they were already back home following the evacuation. Everybody evacuated this summer endured some hardship, but I’m not aware of any public sector workers in the territory that went without a paycheque.

The same goes for Covid-19. Beauticians, airline workers, tourism operators, among many others, spent weeks, months, and in some cases, the entire pandemic without a regular source of income aside from federally-issued CERB cheques. Most of the public sector worked from home during the pandemic and none were laid off due to a lack of work.

It can be a difficult thing at times to predict how public discontent will manifest itself at the NWT ballot box, or if there is enough of it to influence results. But MLA candidates should be aware of the chasm that has opened up over the life of the 19th Legislative Assembly exposing a tale of two territories: one of a sheltered, protected public service; the other a private sector class of workers, entrepreneurs and the self-employed who have grown accustomed to never knowing when the other shoe will drop and put them out of business. Many of them view the GNWT as an entity serving itself ahead of everyone else.

It’s important that the territory has a strong public service workforce. We will undoubtedly need it to weather the economic storm coming with the closure of the territory’s diamond mines. But not everyone can work for government, and we cannot rely on Amazon for all the things we need.

I walked through Centre Square Mall the other day in a city with the highest per capita income in Canada and more than half the stores are shuttered and closed. This is quite the contrast. The reality is that the NWT is also one of the most expensive jurisdictions to live in, trebly so in the communities where jobs are far less numerous.

Will this divide prove to be an overarching issue this election? The proof will be in what the ballot boxes show us come election day.