NWT premier not the people’s premier

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I sense a bit of bewilderment at Premier Bob McLeod’s 11th hour announcement (literally – he emailed the news to Yellowknifer reporter Simon Whitehouse at 11:09 p.m., Thursday night) that he won’t be seeking re-election after three terms in the legislative assembly.

It would have been appropriate for Premier McLeod to have given the territory a heads up. At least to his constituents (of which I am one) and any potential candidates who may have thought about running in his district but shied away because they didn’t want to compete with a sitting premier.

Few people are surprised the 67-year-old, two-term premier won’t be making a plea for three. Getting a second term was extraordinary enough. No other MLA has accomplished the feat since the legislative assembly took control of the territorial government in 1979. So really McLeod has nothing left to prove and likely little to gain by running yet again.

That said, the premier’s seeming indifference to the question of political succession has struck some people as a little weird.

Imagine this were Alberta in the lead up to their election last spring. Could you picture Rachel Notley letting the clock run out on her political career after dispatching a six-word note to a reporter getting ready for bed: “I will not be running, thanks”?

It would be unthinkable.

But to me his recalcitrance on this issue says a lot more about the manner in which premiers are selected in this territory than it does about Bob McLeod.

It’s not like you voted for him to be your premier. He’s not there because you liked his ideas or the direction he wanted to take the territory. And it’s not like he owes you his premiership either.

He can thank voters in Yellowknife South for putting him in the legislative assembly but the premiership? He owes that to MLAs meeting behind closed doors.

If you bother voting in territorial elections, and many of you don’t, it’s because you liked one person running for MLA better than the other people running against them. That’s it.

It’s not to say ideology and ideas didn’t factor into your vote. It usually does, but what can a candidate in the Northwest Territories promise other than to be for something or against it?

There is no program to vote for, no political party to punish because they are doing something stupid. What government we get after Oct. 1 is anybody’s guess. Will the next premier wheel around the country flipping flapjacks with Doug Ford and Jason Kenney? Maybe.

What we do know is what voters decide in Nanukput has nothing to do with the choice voters make in Yellowknife South. Or Kam Lake, Thebacha, Monfwi or anywhere.

This is not to make light of McLeod’s accomplishments, of which there are many. It’s to point out the deficiencies in our political system. McLeod brought the territory devolution over land and resources in 2014 but there is still unfinished business. The democratic spirit remains weak in this territory.

Politicians at the territorial level like to pretend consensus government is a uniquely Northern institution but aside from its very colonial roots (see Sir Frederick Haultain), it is deficient for one very important reason: it gives voters no actual say in where the government is heading. The 18th assembly gave itself a mandate letter comprised of 230 legislative commitments, but not a single one of them was tested with voters.

There are two ways the territory can remedy this: bring in party politics which nobody in the territory seems to like, or as Nunavut’s former premier, Paul Quassa, has suggested, allow all voters to choose a premier, not unlike voting in a mayor and council. The premier sets the agenda, the MLAs vote on it.

No system is perfect but right now the NWT premier is the MLAs’ premier, not the people’s.

Having a premier, elected on a platform approved by voters, would lend the territory a sense of unity it does not enjoy today. And it would be so much harder for the premier to leave without saying “goodbye.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. You forgot to mention cabinet gets appointed by the premier and can be replaced by them at any point in time. So any MLA’s that are in cabinet are pretty much forced to vote with the premier rather than vote on what’s best for the people they are expected to represent.

    I’d also like to know why Yellowknife having close to 1/2 the population of the territory has just over 30% of the MLAs whatever happened to equal representation? This gets even more watered down if Yellowknife MLA’s are chosen to be in cabinet or become premier as now the vote they had is almost always determined by the premier.

    This isn’t to say party politics are the way to go, but the people need to have more of a say. I’d like to see how many people in the territory were for contracting out or hospital to the public sector, or spending $300+Mil on a road to Tuktoyaktuk.

  2. Having lived in both the NWT and Yukon, I very much preferred the NWT’s no-party system. I very much liked only having to decide which candidate would serve my riding best. Because they weren’t beholden to a pre-determined party line, I could talk with my MLA about the issues affecting our constituency and he was genuinely open to advice and criticism and could (and did) take that feedback with him to Yellowknife. I don’t find the same openness in a party system where MLA’s are more-likely to defend a party’s platform (even if it proves to be a bad idea) than they are to advocate for their constituents. My NWT MLA’s job was to do his best for the constituency and the territory as a whole – as opposed to Yukon MLAs who are more likely to prioritize the party for fear of repercussions if they don’t. In the NWT, there was an openness to hearing concerns and generating new ideas that I don’t find in a party system.

    I also like that the Premier is selected from the MLAs and accountable to the MLAs. It makes it easier to remove a Premier if they’re doing a bad job (without toppling the entire government). We don’t elect Premiers anywhere in Canada.

    With respect to your last comment about electing a platform approved by voters giving the territory a sense of unity it does not enjoy today goes very much against what a party system does. Party systems by their very nature create disunity and division.

  3. Good points Mike. There is a certain cult in NT/NU for non-political politics, at the territorial level, which is based, loosely, on the myth that it works by consensus. All that voters have left to base their decisions on is whether they like the candidates’ personality, or maybe business or family connections.
    I have seen no evidence whatsoever that this produces a better form for f democracy. Quite the opposite in fact.

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