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GNWT meeting mulls indebted candidate concern, mum on independent election of premier

Nicole Latour, Chief Electoral Officer speaks during the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures meeting on June 10. screengrab image

An MLA committee recently convened to discuss the report from last year's territorial election devoted about 15 minutes to the issue of indebtedness and election candidate eligibility, and zero minutes toward a recommendation to allow residents to vote for the premier.

The Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures met for almost two hours on June 10 to discuss recommendations from chief electoral officer Nicole Latour in her report.

But politics watchers would likely have been disappointed after Latour and the five MLAs in the meeting didn't once mention Latour's recommendation that more attention be given to the issue of electing the premier independently, instead of how it's done in the current consensus system where MLAs decide who the premier will be behind closed doors.

Nicole Latour, chief electoral officer of the NWT, speaks during the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures meeting on June 10. screengrab image

"The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer continues to receive electors’ concerns around accountability in the consensus style government," Latour wrote.

"Many express their desire to elect the premier independently as is done with mayor and council in communities. Achieving something of this nature would likely require convening a commission with the focus of electoral reform. However, ensuring a higher level of accountability may be easier to achieve.

"Therefore, the final recommendation that stems from the delivery of the 2019 territorial general election is that legislators should give some consideration to, through the Elections and Plebiscites Act, providing some form of answerability to electors."

NNSL Media has sent an inquiry to Premier Caroline Cochrane's office seeking her comment on the issue and was awaiting a response.

Indebtedness of election candidates

The issue of indebted political candidates came back into the spotlight in late May when an effort to unseat Infrastructure Minister Katrina Nokleby was supported by Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, who has owed almost $2 million to the Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC). Nokleby is responsible for that agency.

Simpson was elected MLA in his electoral district in October, but the public didn't become aware of his debts until after the election.

RELATED REPORTING: ‘No one asked me’ says Hay River South MLA-elect on nearly $2 million owed to GNWT

Latour recommended in her report that consideration should be given to harmonizing the laws on indebted political candidates, since indebtedness to a municipality disqualifies candidates from municipal elections but not MLA candidates who owe money to the GNWT.

RELATED REPORTING: Report recommending MLA candidates indebted to GNWT be barred from running to be discussed Wednesday

Simpson, who is a member of the standing committee, told the other attendees that he would step out when indebtedness came up.

"I may have a perceived conflict (of interest). When the matter arises I’ll remove myself from the chamber until the matter is discussed," he said.

Indebtedness was the last item to be discussed in the meeting. Latour introduced the item by saying that peoples' financial situation shouldn't necessarily preclude them from running for office, while pointing out many NWT residents are aware of the apparent mismatch between municipal and territorial laws. 

"I understand the confusion. My suggestion is that legislators talk among themselves. Should it still continue to exist in the other act or should it be added so that it’s standardized for running for office across the NWT?" she asked. 

Steve Norn, MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, speaks during the June 10 committee meeting. screengrab image

Shane Thompson, MLA for Nahendeh, said the NWT has four levels of rules for elections: First Nation and Métis bands, municipalities, the territory and the federal government.

"To me there’s confusion if we’re trying to link the Elections and Plebiscites Act with the Local Authorities Election Act," he said. "What about Indigenous governments that don't have the same rules? My concern is that we seem to be trying to take the territorial government and put it into municipality rules. We want to make informed, evidence-based decisions and without knowing what other jurisdictions do, it’s a concern for me."  

Steve Norn, MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, implied that the territorial election law should disallow indebtedness in candidates because it's a higher level of office.

"When we’re elected to office we’re held to a higher standard, even more with cabinet," he said. 

"You want people with higher standards. Especially if we’re passing a $1.8 billion budget, you need that public confidence that we know that we’re responsible for how we spend money. If I’m deemed not fit to even manage my own money or pay my own taxes how am I going to be seen if I went to a finance portfolio? I think that would be something to think about.  

"We should be held to a higher standard in this office. We should have some safeguards for that." 

Jackie Jacobson, MLA for Nunakput; Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake; and Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake were in the meeting but didn't offer their thoughts on the issue.

In an email to NNSL Media, Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. said under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms "any citizen may stand for office and no law regarding debt of a citizen can abridge that right."

MLAs will get more chances to voice their opinions on the issue in the coming months, as the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures plans to hold more public hearings in the late summer and early fall, said Michael Ball, manager of committees at the legislative assembly.

That committee also expects to deliver a response paper on Latour's 2019 election report in the fall sitting of the assembly.