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Then there were two: former premier and health minister vie for top job in NWT cabinet

After weeks of up to five names circulating as potential candidates to lead the territory in the 18th Legislative Assembly, only two members stood to show their intention to run for premier on Wednesday: incumbent Premier Bob McLeod and Minister of Health and Social Services Glen Abernethy.

Both candidates recognized that the Nov. 23 election that drew in 11 new MLAs signaled a desire for change, a call for new leadership, and a new direction.

How they interpreted that message differed greatly.

Abernethy: change is nothing new

First to speak after the declarations, Abernethy firmly stated that the status quo is no longer acceptable. With a proven track record as minister of Health and Social Services, Abernethy outlined his ability to guide the 18th Legislative Assembly into a new era, chock-full of change.

Having headed one of the heavier portfolios of the 17th Assembly, Abernethy listed off a number of his accomplishments, including the development of the Anti-Poverty Framework in collaboration with various organizations, and the plan to reform child and family services. As well as his effort to transform health and social services overall, Abernethy made a clear case that, despite coming up against an experienced premier, his own experience lies in making change.

“I believe strongly that our past actions often predict future behaviour. I have shared my recent experiences with you as evidence that I don’t support the status quo and that I have worked hard with my previous colleagues, the public, Aboriginal governments, and others to bring about change within our public service,” he told his fellow MLAs.

“I think that the key to a stronger future is innovation and a willingness to approach things differently.”

There are major projects still in the works under Abernethy’s past portfolio, including the integration of health authorities – which he quickly corrected is not a superboard – and various key pieces of legislation falling under Health and Social Services. While he is potentially handing over that position in favour of premier, Abernethy said there are no guarantees in this consensus government system.

“I’m a member; I’m one of 19. Nobody knows where we’re going to land at the end of the day. If I was a regular member, I’m still going to be fighting for the issues that are important to residents of the NWT. I do have some information that’s going to help me in that fight, but I’m going to work for the people regardless of where I’m sitting,” he said. “I have a desire at this point to change the seat I’m sitting in and work in a different capacity, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

McLeod: a new vision driven by past experience

Though incumbent premier, McLeod also highlighted that people want change.

“That was a very clear message we all heard during the election campaign and one I am committed to honouring,” he said in his speech. “People want a government that reflects their values and priorities, they want accessible leaders, and they want a role in shaping government decisions.”

Rather than underscoring his past successes in the chair he’s again seeking, McLeod focused more on priorities and visions for the upcoming term.

He kicked off with the recommendation of a portfolio responsible for transparency and democratic engagement. McLeod also listed his priorities as being education, the economy, infrastructure, tackling the cost of living, decreasing the territory’s dependence on fossil fuels and, lastly, recognizing Indigenous rights.

Whether having experience on his side will be an advantage or hindrance in these times of change is still undetermined, but no matter how you count it, McLeod said there will be at least two new faces in cabinet, picked out of the 11 first-time MLAs.

“I think people realize we have some difficult issues and it would be helpful to have some experienced members,” McLeod said. “But usually, it comes down to merit.”

Giving a nod to his opponent – though ad-libbed and not part of the written speech – McLeod said both he and Abernethy would do a good job. He then steered the focus to what is to come, rather than what’s happened.

“My message today is built on experience and the success of our past efforts,” McLeod stated. “However, it is not about the past. It is about the present and the future. The challenges ahead are many, but they will be met through the extraordinary efforts of each of us.”

The choice comes down to an experienced premier with promises of change, and a minister with a proven will for reform who promised to lead the territory in the right direction.

Now, fittingly, the process that once saw MLAs elect their premier within hours of the declarations and speeches, has changed. With two names on the ballot for premier, a mini-election period kicks off in which MLAs have one week to consider and confer before they cast their secret votes on Dec. 16.◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/Bosphorus

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