GUEST COMMENT: Consensus government: our prize or our illusion?

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by Dennis Bevington

In the absence of a constitution or any legal framework for politics in the NWT Legislative Assembly, most of us, citizens of this developing territory, rely for our rights as voters, where there are no political parties, on an abstract term called “Consensus Government.”

Former NWT MP Dennis Bevington warns against re-colonization of the North in this guest column.
Former NWT MP Dennis Bevington questions how consensus government serves democracy in this guest column.

We choose representatives on a local basis, to serve either as ordinary members, or if their peers in the assembly decide, as cabinet ministers or perhaps even premier.

Up on till this, the 19th assembly, we operated through unwritten convention that the premier would be only serving one term. Premier Bob Macleod chose to break that convention by putting his name forward for a second term, and the assembly members voted to elect him. So much for that friendly understanding.

You might ask, “What’s the big deal?”

Well, many countries have very fixed rules, constitutionally protected as to the length of term of their highest officials. This prevents a form of democratic dictatorship. In a consensus style government, why would we want to limit the terms for one individual for premier? Simply, consensus suggests that one person should not be overly powerful for long periods of time.

Consensus demands more than simply listening, but the responsibility to hear, understand and incorporate. Leadership must accept and promote these conditions. Consensus government must be the opposite of top down rule.

Another unwritten agreement in the assembly is that the cabinet ministers are chosen to ensure fair representation. Two come from the Northern ridings, two from Yellowknife and two from the south. It seems that one of our strong beliefs in consensus is that authority must be spread out through the territory. We live in a large and diverse territory with strong Indigenous interests, who are engaged in developing their forms of self government. Regardless of the aptitude of MLAs, we have shown a willingness and commitment to this regionalism. The downside of course is that we limit the ability for choices to be made on merit.

Consensus would suggest that the ordinary MLA would be a significant part of the decision-making process. To be useful in this regard requires access to information. When one considers the role of openness in a consensus government, one might assume that this would be the norm at all levels.

Yes, after each election there is a process of goal setting, but the ongoing priorities and implementation are less inclusive.

Instead, to a great degree among the bureaucracy and the cabinet, the standard Canadian form seems to be the stock in trade. One might assume that ordinary MLAs would have almost unlimited access to cabinet meetings, briefing papers and decision-making rationales. Limitations could made for sensitive areas that would be clearly outlined, but the principle would be sharing of information.

Another issue lies within the public service. The territorial government has a strong third generation bureaucracy controlled and centered in Yellowknife.

To a large extent it’s model is similar to every other bureaucracy across the country, with one significant difference. Where there is party politics, mandates and directions are set in elections with winners and losers. In our consensus system, the directions for government are set in process after the election, with the controlling hand of the bureaucracy setting the stage. No individual MLA, cabinet minister or premier has to sell this direction to their constituents, or bear any responsibility for the outcomes. With the past three out of four governments led by career bureaucrats, the power of the ballot box has been steadily eroded.

After many decades our system of consensus government needs tuning and redefinition or we will lose it to party politics. In the next while we will be engaged in an electoral boundaries commission, which will change the legislature. Before that happens, we need an independent effort by Northerners to determine our future. We might call it Bourne Report 2.

There is much to be said on this issue. Let’s engage our young people in something that will define their future.

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