Consensus-style government was thrust into the spotlight last week when members of the Nunavut legislative assembly voted to remove Paul Quassa from his role as premier.
A majority of MLAs had lost confidence in Quassa, so they used their authority to push him out with a motion of non-confidence.
Members of the house chose deputy premier Joe Savikataaq to be the new government leader.
To some observers in the Northwest Territories, the successful non-confidence motion in Nunavut was an example of effective consensus government.
“Fascinating debate about Paul Quassa’s leadership & consensus government,” tweeted Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green on Thursday.
“So much for #NWT to learn.”
Nunavut’s non-confidence vote was “an exercise in accountability,” Green said in an interview on Friday. “The MLAs held the premier accountable for his performance.”
Last October’s midterm review of Premier Bob McLeod and the NWT cabinet was meant to provide a similar level of accountability, but in Green’s view, it fell short.
“Instead of having each MLA vote according to the wishes of his constituents, they were all bound into this cabinet solidarity in a situation in which there should have been a free vote, which is what happened (Thursday) in Nunavut,” said Green.
Following the mid-term performance review, members voted by secret ballot on whether they still had confidence in the premier and each minister.
Louis Sebert, the minister of Justice and Lands, was the sole member of cabinet to lose the vote.
But unlike Quassa, Sebert kept his job.
That is because in a public confidence vote two weeks later, some MLAs changed their tune.
A majority of the house, including all of cabinet and four regular MLAs, voted against a motion to remove Sebert from the executive council.
When asked whether cabinet voted as a block in October to protect Sebert, the premier stated the following in an email:
“The deliberations of cabinet meetings are kept entirely confidential so that discussions can be as frank as possible.”
He went on to say, “it is important to remember that cabinet did not vote alone on this motion; all MLAs voted, including four regular MLAs who voted against it.”
Neither Nunavut nor the Northwest Territories has political parties, meaning each member of the legislative assembly is elected as an independent.
In the NWT, elected members select the premier, speaker and six cabinet ministers from among their ranks.
The remaining 11 members make up a majority of the legislative assembly and act as an opposition of sorts.
The regular MLAs are responsible for questioning ministers in the house and holding them to account for their actions (or inaction).
In party politics, “the premier may be a dud but you have to wait four years to do something about it,” said Green.
She said Nunavut’s political shake-up demonstrates that consensus government is able to respond quickly to poor leadership.
To be sure, said Green, MLAs in NWT and Nunavut recognize the importance of government stability, which is why no confidence motions are so rare.
There has never been a successful non-confidence motion in the NWT.
In Nunavut, Quassa was the first premier in the territory’s 19-year history to be removed between elections.
Kieron Testart, the member for Kam Lake, also took to twitter on Thursday: “A big day for the Nunavut Legislative Assembly as MLAs vote overwhelmingly to remove Paul Quassa as Premier.
“It takes real courage to stand up to power and from listening to the MLAs it was not an easy decision, but nevertheless one that had to be made.”
To David Wasylciw, the events in Nunavut signaled that consensus government there is “a little healthier” than in the NWT.
An advocate for transparent government and the man behind OpenNWT, Wasylciw believes the NWT’s mid-term review and subsequent confidence votes, were “not terribly worthwhile.”
“Everybody spent all their time trying to get ready for the review rather than actually accomplishing something,” he said on Friday.
There is value in elected officials taking stock of their progress, said Wasylciw, but in the midterm review, political motives appeared to drive the process.
“It wasn’t just about performance, it wasn’t just about programs, it was also about who gets to be in cabinet,” he said.
Wasylciw sees upsides to both party politics and consensus government.
“The whole point of consensus and coming together is that you get solutions that appeal to more people,” he said.
“There’s a lot of ways where it works,” Wasylciw added, “(But) I think we can make it work better.”
McLeod had ‘strong relationships’ with previous Nunavut premiers
Premier Bob McLeod did not initially comment on the leadership change in Nunavut.
Upon a request from Yellowknifer, he issued this statement:
“The three territorial governments have a strong relationship built on respect and a desire to improve the lives of Northerners. I had strong relationships with Premiers (Peter) Taptuna and (Paul) Quassa, and look forward to working closely with Premier (Joe) Sakivataaq.”
McLeod added that he is confident he can work with the premiers of Nunavut and the Yukon to push northern priorities.
“I have known and worked with Premier Sakivataaq previously when we were both with the Department of Renewable Resources prior to the creation of Nunavut,” he said.
“I look forward to seeing him again when we are in New Brunswick next month at the Council of Federation.”