Politics

Making consensus government work: Beyond cabinet selections, regular MLAs must harness their power

The dust has settled, the secret ballots have been cast, and MLAs in the Northwest Territories have anointed a new government.

In what will go down as a minor historic moment in the legislature, the territory’s freshly elected members chose reigning Premier Bob McLeod as the man who will lead the tide of change that so many have been cheering on since an unprecedented number of incumbents were voted out in last month’s territorial election.

The decision came on the heels of a week-long showdown between McLeod—who became the first ever premier to be re-elected to the position for a second term—and former Health Minister Glen Abernethy.

The process would normally have been a one-day behind-the-scenes affair, but the 11 new MLAs in the assembly pushed for a short window to allow them to deliberate and get feedback from constituents.

As CBC’s Chris Windeyer pointed out, the decision was a small indication that, despite the mild weather this winter, the winds of change were indeed blowing through the obscure halls of the Legislative Assembly.

During the ensuing mini-campaigns, both candidates attempted to capitalize on Obama’s tried and tested slogan, in an attempt to convince their peers and the public that they were best qualified to steer the legislature on a different tack.

In the end, MLAs did the sensible thing by going for the grizzled veteran rather than opting for a facelift just for the sake of it.

Abernethy offered up a new face and some strong bureaucratic rhetoric, while McLeod belatedly acknowledged that having so many incumbents unceremoniously shown the door was a sign that voters wanted things done differently, despite previously denying the fact in the immediate aftermath of the election.

In the end, MLAs did the sensible thing by going for the grizzled veteran rather than opting for a facelift just for the sake of it. With the amount of upheaval in the recent election, resulting in the loss of vital players like Michael Miltenberger and David Ramsay, the territory will need at least one steady hand to give the legislature some semblance of stability and continuity.

The fact that McLeod’s brother Michael is now representing the NWT for the Liberal Party in Ottawa could also provide a vital lifeline to the territorial government, which has often had its pleas ignored by the feds in recent years.

That’s all fine and well, but whither the winds of change? As in the race for premier, cabinet hopefuls were flashing their “change” credentials in their speeches yesterday, with many invoking all-important buzz words like “transparency” and “accountability”. Once the head-scratching process of counting and recounting ballots was finished, only two out of six ministers—Glen Abernethy and Robert C. McLeod—will be returning. They will be joined by three first time MLAs, including just the seventh woman to ever serve in cabinet, Range Lake MLA Caroline Cochrane-Johnson.

As with the upheaval in the wake of election itself, the government looks fine on paper. But once elected to cabinet, even the most vocal opponents of the government have a tendency to lose their bite. One need look no further than Ramsay and Abernethy, who quickly went from fighting tooth and nail against the status quo, to being a evasive ministers toeing the party line.

That is not to say that vociferous champions of reform like Cochrane-Johnson won’t break ranks when push comes to shove. But by virtue of becoming one of many cogs in the cabinet machine, ministers are often reduced to answering—or in many cases evading—questions from regular MLAs who are there to keep them honest, rather than making bold statements or proclamations themselves.

All too often, MLAs walk into the assembly as lone wolves, armed with motions and questions that will almost certainly be brushed aside by the well oiled-machine that is cabinet without peer support.

Which brings us to those who either weren’t interested or lost out on the $56,000 a year sweepstakes awarded to those who serve as ministers. While many of yesterday’s hopefuls made pledges of reform and renewal, it was ultimately a rookie regular MLA who ended up defying the status quo by disclosing his secret selections for premier and cabinet.

As promised during his election campaign, Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart (who unseated Ramsay) published his list of choices, along with the justification for his unsuccessful bid for Abernethy as premier immediately following the final vote.

By holding true to his word, Testart showed that actions speak louder than words. More importantly, he revealed an important fact that recently retired MLA Wendy Bisaro pointed out on Twitter in the midst of yesterday’s mad scramble for cabinet: people don’t recognize how much power regular MLAs have if they act together.

To be sure, Testart’s “leak” will inevitably score him major political points among his supporters. It will also expose a minor chink in the obfuscated armour of consensus government. But imagine if Testart had been able to rally his fellow MLAs to do the same. Such a show of solidarity might not only have dealt a fatal blow to the bizarre process of selecting the premier and cabinet via secret ballot, but it would also have reinforced the power of MLAs to make a difference.

Like in so many previous election campaigns, there was no shortage of calls to reform the territory’s system of consensus government this time around. But even if the system escapes the 18th Assembly unscathed, MLAs should realize they don’t need be members of a political party to act in unison.

Simple math shows regular MLAs have 11 able bodies to the executive’s seven, with the Speaker acting as referee and potential tiebreaker—not a bad advantage for a group that is persistently seen as the democratic underdog.

All too often, MLAs walk into the assembly as lone wolves, armed with motions and questions that will almost certainly be brushed aside by the well oiled-machine that is cabinet without peer support. While regional priorities and ideological differences are sure to divide MLAs along certain lines, a little organization and some compromise could make them a force for real change.

Indeed, if MLAs could rally together and maybe get a member of cabinet on their side from time to time, they might find themselves relishing their newfound power, rather than calling for the head of consensus government.◉


Photo credit: istockphoto/Niyazz

You Might Also Like