EDITORIAL: NWT premier is not the pope

Silent leadership hopefuls proof that voters don’t really matter in NWT electoral system

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Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, left, and outgoing Premier Bob McLeod. The way we select our premier is not all that dissimilar to how the Catholic Church selects its supreme pontiffs. Neither process is very democratic. Wikimedia photos

The way we select the premier in the NWT is bananas.

Unlike provincial premiers, who earn their positions based on their leadership of the winning party, here the premier is chosen using a process surrounded in elaborate ritual, deep secrecy and internal politicking.

It is not dissimilar to how the Catholic Church selects its popes.

That ritual begins with chants and prayers in an ancient language and concludes with the unveiling of the supreme pontiff on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

In the North, MLAs eschew most of the chanting but the process is no less mysterious. The official selection will start on Oct. 18 when candidates put their names before the territorial leadership committee. A few speeches are made and then our premier is unveiled on the morning of Oct. 24, along with our new cabinet members.

MLAs will be able to consult with constituents before casting their vote but for the most part this exercise takes place behind closed doors.

Unofficially, the negotiations have already begun. Factions are forming, deals are being struck and folks are trading favours in the hopes of scoring a spot on cabinet or receiving support for a campaign promise.

And then there are all the unwritten rules and conventions.

Traditionally, the premiership alternates between MLAs in the North, south and Yellowknife. Bob McLeod broke that convention when he served as the first two-term premier in the territory’s history, but if it is to be revived, the next premier will be someone from outside the capital.

That leaves either R.J. Simpson, the acclaimed MLA for Hay River North and son of embattled MLA-elect for Hay River South, Rocky Simpson, who will enter elected office owing nearly $2 million to the GNWT.

Or Jackson Lafferty, who was acclaimed in Monfwi for the second time in a row.

Or Thebacha MLA-elect Frieda Martselos.

Then there’s the practice of choosing two cabinet ministers from northern districts, two from southern districts and two from Yellowknife.

It is all well and good to make sure all regions of the territory are represented in the government but what if this means that our most qualified candidates are left by the wayside?

The idiosyncrasies of the system could be forgiven if the whole process was more straightforward and open.

We reached out to all the individuals who have thus far expressed an interest in becoming premier and none of them responded with the notable exception of Range Lake MLA-elect Caroline Cochrane.

Cochrane said she wants the next government to be more pragmatic and less ideologically driven, noting that she felt the previous cabinet’s approach was too conservative.

“I do think a lot differently than the previous cabinet. I bring lots of life experience and years of working with people,” she said. “I’m putting my name forward in hopes we have a more progressive government that looks at the long-term goals over the short-term gains.”

Thank you Ms. Cochrane.

The rest of the candidates remained tight-lipped.

Lafferty said a statement on his intentions would be released today.

Simpson did not return phone calls requesting an interview.

And a man who identified himself as Martselos’ official agent said he had passed on a request for an interview to her, but she has yet to respond.

The whole thing is undemocratic and strange. The selection of who gets to hold the highest office in the territory should not be left to the machinations of 19 people behind closed doors.

If MLAs won’t entertain the idea of changing the electoral system to allow people to vote directly for the premier, the candidates for that job should at least articulate a vision for the territory and share it with residents.

Right now, no one knows why MLAs Lafferty, Simpson and Martselos want to be premier other than they think it’s their turn.

If that’s leadership in the Northwest Territories then we’re truly in for a long four years.

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