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Monfwi MLA attacks 'Taj Mahal' Covid Secretariat; premier says she followed process from 'back in the day' in creating it

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Premier Caroline Cochrane has admitted the GNWT didn't have a very good communications plan connected to the creation of the $86-million Covid-19 Secretariat earlier this fall.

The 150-employee organization was set up in September to guide the GNWT's response to the pandemic, and is supposed to be in place for three years.

During an exchange with MLAs in the Legislature Friday, Cochrane said she followed the "normal process (from) back in the day" of presenting documents on the new organization to a standing committee before it was presented to MLAs.

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty criticized the Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat as a "Taj Mahal bureaucracy" in the legislative assembly on Friday. GNWT image

"We didn't have a very good communications plan," the premier said. "We didn't go to the public yet. Out of respect, due process is that we usually work with our MLAs first. So again, I take ownership on our side, but I also say that we tried."

"'Tried' is not good enough," according to Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty.

He asked where support came from Indigenous governments and the public before "this Taj Mahal bureaucracy" was created, when the millions budgeted for the secretariat could be better spent on housing, education and other needs in the communities.

"Just imagine granting $29,000 to each business in the NWT that would cover all the businesses to boost our economy. That's what we should be focusing on. How does the premier reconcile this massive expense with the urgent unfulfilled needs of our business sector?"

"We could give $29,000 to every business and not have border controls, not have isolation units, not give out personal protective equipment (PPE) to our students, to our kids, our most highest risk," Cochrane responded. "We can do all that, Mr. Speaker, but does it make sense when Covid-19 is raging in the south?

"They're in their second wave. The numbers every day are increasing. Should we not put isolation units and our border controls and our enforcement and PPE for our people first? If MLAs think that I should stop everything else that the secretariat is doing and give $29,000 each business then tell me."

Cochrane said the government is still focused on its 22 priorities and the secretariat wouldn't take away from them.

"We're still trying to do business as normal. But again, Mr. Speaker, if that is the reason that they will say, 'Take her out', then take me out, because health and safety is priority. And I have an obligation as the premier of the NWT to make sure that the health and safety of our residents comes first, Mr. Speaker."

The premier reiterated, as she has before, that the secretariat was established to improve efficiencies in the government's response to the pandemic so that staff weren't taking on too much work.

She added that it's possible MLAs won't support more funding for the organization through a supplementary budget request.

Friday's exchange was the latest grilling the premier has faced over the Covid-19 Secretariat.

When the expansion of the GNWT was first announced on Sept. 3, Lafferty and other MLAs questioned the costs involved and asked whether they could be better spent on other needs.

In a standing committee meeting on Sept. 24, MLAs slammed the new organization as a diversion of funds from more important areas. Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly was the only member in that meeting to express support for the secretariat.