Consensus government is no longer working in the Northwest Territories. It is time for us to move toward a party system where the needs of electors are heard. It is in that system where the priorities that the government addresses are not determined by a select few but by all those elected and where critical examination and debate can occur. Tribal politics, which is the nature of our present government, is not democratic nor in alignment with the Canadian value of fair representation for all.
In a 2015 interview with Policy Magazine, then-premier Bob McLeod compared consensus government to a minority government which arrived at mutually agreed on decisions by all MLAs. However, in another breath he also said that a premier, along with two cabinet members, could effectively choose the course of the government. This statement points out the imbalance of power and how the needs of voters can so easily be ignored.
It also demonstrates the potential for premiers to ignore proper consultation required for good decision making. In consequence, McLeod without agreement took an entourage of elected and non-elected personnel to China and made other trips to Vancouver and Calgary at the taxpayers’ expense and without consensual agreement. This effectively brushes aside the concerns of voters who voted in good faith that their voices would be heard and tax dollars respected.
There are only two areas in Canada practicing consensus government; the NWT (43,000) and Nunavut (39,000). It is unheard of in the south. This style of government had its origins in tribal politics where the chief was determined by discussions within the group. The resulting decisions were made by that chief with input from a few select members.
However, that kind of government did not include voting by the general population nor was its basis in equality where every vote is supposed to count. Instead, it was more like an oligarchy – something we are not supposed to practice in Canada.
It is likely that form of governing was more successful then when there was a better attempt at arriving at consensual agreements and shared interests related to survival. Our issues are much more complex and growing in complexity all the time. Too often big business is allowed to determine the path of governments.
The Northwest Territories needs a party system with an opposition that facilitates and encourages robust debate. Now, with limited support and resources, those who are not chosen for cabinet struggle to have the concerns of their constituents heard. This is not acceptable.
Further, because those who are not selected by the premier have limited resources, NGOs and other volunteer organizations also with limited resources struggle to pick up the slack.
In the previous cabinet there was a general push for mining and other resource developments which were not environmentally friendly. It was extremely difficult for environmentalists to have their concerns heard or enjoy access to cabinet MLAs even though we are in climate crisis mode.
And although climate change was the number one concern of voters across this country, it only made the bottom of this government’s priority list while it topped the federal government’s throne speech. The worries of many voters in the NWT, then, are all but ignored.
We hope that when candidates put their names forward that they do so from a heartfelt need to do what is best for NWT residents. If that is the case, this government must investigate how the next election will be decided by party politics – not tribal ones. This should not have to be lead by the grass roots but initiated by a maturing government who on its own, recognizes that need.
The territories must hear the voices of ALL its elected representatives more often and in a more balanced way. Politics is not meant to be a popularity contest, but a procedural mechanism intended to meet the needs of its entire people.
In the interest of mature governance, cabinet needs to move forward on this now.