By Kieron Testart, MLA for Kam Lake
In the 2015 election, voters made history by electing an unprecedented number of new MLAs to the legislative assembly.
It was clear the people wanted change and yet somehow Northerners ended up with its first two-term premier, and a continuation of the status quo. Over the past four years I have asked myself why this happened when the public so clearly asked for something different. Is there a better way of doing politics in the NWT that gives the people more of a say over what the government does? I’ve given this a lot of thought and I believe that one of the fundamental flaws of our democracy is that the systems of influence and political power rest in the hands of those who already hold power, namely incumbent MLAs and the entrenched elites who guide them to predetermined decisions.
“But wait,” I heard you cry. “It’s the same thing in Ottawa with political parties!” Perhaps, but political parties don’t get away with pretending to be something they’re not, unlike the defenders of the status quo who romanticize the current system to impractical heights.
Deprived of tools and resources
To them the consensus system holds the moral high ground against any alternative, a system supposedly where partisan concerns are set aside for the common good in polite and civil discourse – a utopian system in theory which rarely operates that way in reality.
This is true of the current practice of government where power and resources have been centralized in the premier, cabinet and MLAs outside of government are deprived of the tools and resources to effectively do their jobs. Furthermore, criticism of the government can get you into trouble if you ever want to get into cabinet one day in the future. After all, it’s not the public that decides who leads it’s 19 elected officials. If you are on the outside of cabinet, they have four years to apply influence to secure their seats at the table should they be returned by the voters on election day. Historically that has not been a significant challenge; incumbents have upwards of a 70 per cent chance of getting re-elected as is.
Once Northerners have cast their ballots, their roles are finished in determining the outcomes of leadership decisions, governance and public policy choices. MLAs elect ministers from among their ranks and once a premier and cabinet are selected, all the power is transferred to them without effective checks and balances that ensure the accountability of decision makers. Time and time again non-confidence motions have failed, important questions are shrugged off and bad appointments are tolerated. These are not new issues to our democracy. Even the supporters of consensus government tend to admit that accountability and the centralization of power with the premier and cabinet are not true to the idealized model.
These aspects of the system are unlikely to ever change; they are features not bugs. Remember that neither Indigenous peoples, nor non-Indigenous Northerners, chose the consensus system. That decision was made by Ottawa, without any consultation as far as I can find, when it began devolving responsible government to the NWT. And yet, every election, defenders of consensus say something to the effect of, “Oh, well we just need the ‘right’ politicians elected! That will fix our woes!”
But our history seems to paint a different picture.
So what then is the alternative? I argue that Northerners ought to consider the value that a more organized approach to politics and government can bring to benefit their communities, families and pocketbooks. I understand the stigma against political parties, but let’s face it, politicians are generally the least trusted and least respected professionals. Political parties are just an extension of this statistic. However, the benefits and drawbacks of political parties are very clear.
First, consider the concept of a political party – it is nothing more than a group of like-minded people who share the same outlook on government and politics and work together to try to make society a better place based on that shared understanding. Whether it’s called an association, team, coalition, alliance or bloc, the aims of an organized political movement are the same: to ensure that governments address the issues they care about and to support candidates who can advance those issues in a legislature.
Voters have the right to choose
Through a political party, voters have the right to choose who will lead and ultimately who will form government based on their promises made during an election. This makes the electoral process more meaningful than a popularity contest; elections in this system set the course for the next four years of government. If that party loses the confidence of the house or is defeated in an election, then another group gets to take over and offer their vision and ideas to solve the challenges facing society.
This is an important factor that consensus lacks. It takes weeks after election day for a premier and cabinet to be secretly selected, without the involvement of the public. It takes even longer, months if not years, to then set a mandate and start implementing new policies. A political party when elected to government already knows who leads it and already has a platform that was shared with the public, giving it a mandate to govern. That means there is no time wasted in getting the new government up and running, and work starts on day one to deliver on the promises made to the people by candidates during the election.
Furthermore, if you’re someone who wants to run in an election your political organization can give you support through resources, volunteers, training, a network and a platform that means candidates are more focused on their campaigns and are better prepared for the job should they win their seats. Organizing politically can help enhance our representation and enrich our democracy by lifting up candidates from diverse backgrounds to be competitive in elections.
The case for organized politics/party politics is really a case for letting Northerners chart their own destinies by shaping their societies according to their visions and values. It is about building grassroots movements based on shared principles that can outlast any given legislative assembly and continue to build on successful policies that move the North forward.
Ultimately it’s up to you, the voter, to have your voice heard, to decide if the status quo is working for you, and whether or not you want to come together en masse to create tools to hold politicians to account.