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Criticism after patronage appointment

Minister Alfred Moses is facing criticism after giving a contract worth $130,000 per year to his longtime political aide.

The position, workers' adviser with the Workers Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC), is independent of the WSCC but designed to help workers understand the worker's compensation system.

WSCC Minister Alfred Moses

Moses gave the contract to Maia Lepage, who has worked as his campaign agent, constituency assistant and senior adviser. Lepage was also the managing editor of Tusaayaksat Magazine, which is published by the Inuvialuit Communications Society and celebrates the culture of the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic.

Moses is also the minister responsible for the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said a constituent approached him with concerns the position had been filled without a public process.

“And this constituent had knowledge that the previous workers' adviser had been appointed after a public expression of interest had been issued by the government,” said Testart.

A public process guided the minister’s appointment of the last candidate and this constituent was concerned that process wasn’t followed this time around, he said.

“A number of individuals had been waiting for that opportunity to apply for the job, because they felt like they had something to offer and wanted to serve the NWT by serving in this advocacy role,” said Testart. “And they were really disappointed that that opportunity wasn’t afforded to them.”

Testart said he reached out to the minister's office and confirmed the appointment had gone to Moses's staffer but couldn't get in touch with the minister directly.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart

“So I spoke to the premier directly and I advised him of my concerns and the public’s concerns around this appointment,” said Testart. “And the premier did not think this was a problem.”

Testart said he encouraged Premier Bob McLeod to not only reverse the appointment until a public process can be issued but to adopt a new cabinet policy ensuring all future appointments made by ministers are subject to “open, transparent and fair appointment processes.”

The premier was not receptive to that suggestion either, said Testart.

In a statement provided Dec. 21, McLeod said he told Testart to take the matter up with Minister Moses.

"The MLA raised the matter as part of another meeting, and I advised him that it was a matter to address with the minister, who is legally responsible for the appointment," the premier stated.

According to Testart, there is currently no policy that dictates such a process must be followed, and the Worker's Compensation Act allows the minister to fill the position any way they see fit. Testart said he received a response from Moses late Wednesday, pointing out the legislation. But that's not the point, Testart said.

“Just because the legislation gives the minister that power, doesn’t mean that’s where it stops,” he said. “Northerners understand that patronage positions are not helpful and it denies Northerners from all walks of life and communities across our vast territory the opportunity to express their interest in these kind of positions and to ensure we’re getting the best qualified candidates. We have to do whatever we can to ensure there’s trust whenever these appointments are made and when there’s any hint of patronage, its unfair to any candidate who is successful,” said Testart.

In his response, the minister said he anticipates turnover at WSCC and wanted someone with expertise. But Testart said he’s not convinced.

“The political staffer who has been appointed has no formal expertise with the WSCC and furthermore, the workers' adviser position is not related to the governance of the WSCC,” he said.

“So those explanations I don’t think hold a lot of water, or satisfy the public’s concerns.”

Testart wouldn’t comment on whether he felt the new hire was qualified for the position but said the issue lies with process, fairness and transparency. Public processes are a way to safeguard the political appointment process from accusations of bias, he said.

“When you have a government that insists it is committed to transparency, accountability and correcting a lot of the deficiencies that people have noticed over the years of consensus government, you’d expect them to ensure that when they do have a public process, they maintain that process for future appointments,” he said. “And that just wasn’t done in this case.”

Patronage appointments are not new to politics, or an issue only for consensus governments, but are a longstanding problem in other jurisdictions as well, Testart said.

“Prime Ministers have lost elections based on patronage appointments in this country,” said Testart, adding that the minister should be held accountable for the appointment.

“Until the minister reverses this decision or provides better response than he’s given, I’m not content that this is a resolved matter,” he said.

In a written response via email, Minister Moses defended the appointment, citing the ministerial authority laid out in the Worker's Compensation Act.

The workers’ adviser position is an appointed position that is not part of the WSCC or the public service,” stated Moses, adding that the appointment can be reviewed each year.  The previous workers' adviser was appointed in 2017 on a three-year contract but left early.

“Due to recent announcements of staff changes at the WSCC, including the resignation of the current workers’ adviser taking effect next week and the expiration of the terms of three governance council members early in the new year, I decided it was important to appoint a new workers’ adviser as soon as possible to maintain consistency and continuity in services to Northern employers and workers,” he said.

“Ms. LePage is a longtime Northern resident with experience in both the private and public sectors, including 10 years working in corrections and conflict resolution. She is already familiar with the issues and has established relationships with the governance council and WSSC,” stated Moses. Appointing LePage now allows her to work with the departing worker's adviser for a seamless transition, he said.

“This is a proactive step that has not been possible in the past and will ensure there is consistency for the workers, the WSCC and stakeholders,” said Moses.

Testart said he plans to raise the issue in the legislative assembly when it resumes sitting in February.