Consensus government in the NWT has run its course

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The issue: Consensus government
We say: Doesn’t work

“Maybe by having our MLAs as ministers we have been getting some benefit. I just haven’t seen it at this particular juncture.”

– Jozef Carnogursky, Nihtat Gwich’in Council president.

Northern News Services

It makes sense when it came time to decide on what type of government the territory would have that something not entirely mirroring the British Westminster system was deemed appropriate.

After all, this is a land that was brutally colonized for generations by Europeans – many of whom were of British ancestry.

True consensus government, as the territory recognizes it, got its start in the late 1970s as indigenous leaders and other Northerners began to assert their rights over the land and Ottawa allowed a move toward “responsible government” with a fully elected legislative assembly. To reflect indigenous custom, elected members sit in a circle.

But experts and scholars generally consider an absence of political parties as a sign of political immaturity in a governing system. There are also some pretty clear examples of how the current consensus form of government has some serious flaws.

Two prominent residents of Inuvik spoke out about consensus government in News/North last week, (“Time to agree on ending consensus government?” May 8). The premise of the report was to determine what, if any benefits were to be had with both of the town’s MLAs – Robert C. McLeod (Twin Lakes) and Alfred Moses (Boot Lake) – being in cabinet.

Under a political party system of government, it’s generally assumed that constituencies represented by politicians in the governing side of the aisle will fare somewhat better over time than those with opposition MLAs. The icing on the cake for a constituent is to have his or her MLA be in cabinet, as that inner-circle decides on policy and spending and can direct projects or infrastructure money to their home turf.

“Having two ministers from Inuvik, the question is, is that a good thing?” asked Jozef Carnogursky, president of the Nihtat Gwich’in Council. “Sometimes it can be but when you’re going through budget cuts and processes like we’re going through now, you don’t really have anybody that can advocate for you publicly because of the government-cabinet solidarity issue.”

Joe Lavoie, Inuvik town councillor and businessperson said, he has doubted consensus government for a long time.

“I believe consensus government has run its course in the territory,” he said. “It’s good in theory, like I suppose all political systems are, but we don’t have the opposition that’s calling the government to task.

As the Yukon and the rest of Canada knows, having a party system means there is a main opposition party and perhaps a third or fourth party holding the government’s feet to the fire every day. While that does result in some theatrics for TV during Question Period, it does make for a governing party that must work pretty hard to stay in power.

Critics of the consensus system wonder how anything really gets done, as there is little motivation for cabinet to work extra hard to move files through the bureaucracy. Also, as the regular MLAs – the unofficial opposition aren’t assigned shadow cabinet roles as is done under party politics, they simply jump from issue to issue and never really make a mark.

Minister McLeod said being in cabinet might take away his ability to stand up in the House during session and raise constituency issues but he can still raise those issues meeting with ministers individually. He said governments in party systems often have majorities, meaning they can push through budgets and legislation by strength of numbers.

News/North says that’s exactly what we need more of in the NWT – progress.

That’s called accomplishment. That’s called building a future instead of talking about one.

Consensus government might be fine for a student body or a city council but perhaps it’s not best for larger, more complicated jurisdictions.

A proper Westminster system of government – and we certainly don’t want to consider a Republic, as in the United States – includes political parties.

It doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of all indigenous traditions, just incorporate them into a better system of government.