North·Opinion

Bureaucrats or MLAs? Who's really calling the shots in the N.W.T. government

The firing of former Aurora College president Tom Weegar exposes the power of career bureaucrats who use their access to the Premier to leverage undue influence, former MLA Kieron Testart argues.

Politicians are elected to lead and public servants to follow, but that's not the case, argues Kieron Testart

A file photo of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. Former MLA Kieron Testart says the premier's willingness to fire Tom Weegar as the head of Aurora College could demonstrate bureaucrats calling the shots, instead of their political counterparts. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

When Premier Caroline Cochrane fired post-secondary education czar Tom Weegar and replaced him with a career public servant I doubt she expected anyone to care.

After all governments change personnel all the time. But Weegar was different. His much celebrated hiring only a year ago was trumpeted by politicians as the answer to the N.W.T.'s stalled post-secondary education system and beleaguered Aurora College.

His unexpected termination was made worse when he alleged that his sacking was due to sabotage by long-serving bureaucrats who resisted his efforts to limit the government of the Northwest Territories' role at Aurora College and to change education policies and programs. 

It took three tries for Education Minister R.J. Simpson to respond to this incident, each time with a different story that only added more uncertainty.

To anyone paying attention to territorial politics, the feeling that bureaucrats are calling the shots instead of their political masters comes as no surprise. 

Leadership that moves the bureaucracy outside of its comfort zone is sorely needed in the N.W.T.- Kieron Testart, Former MLA

MLAs are often elected with bold platforms to effect change during their four-year terms that are frequently at odds with bureaucrats whose plans can span decades.

I've heard bureaucrats contemptuously refer to elections as "silly season," forgetting that our democracy is as much about setting the course of government and allowing the voices of the public to be heard, as it is about voting for MLAs. 

Bureaucrats 'wore down' creativity, ambition

When I was elected in 2015 my fellow MLAs were given briefings by the cadre of senior managers who run the government. These briefings were slanted toward the limitations of government instead of what was possible.

On the face of it, this was an effort to break in new members, but each briefing wore down the creativity and ambition of the collective group.

In the end, the mandate of the 18th Assembly was written by the bureaucracy with commitments that were unmeasurable, risk averse and fixed to no real timelines. MLAs outside of cabinet were so disappointed in the final product they forced amendments on the floor of the House, voting against cabinet 10-7 each time.

It is usually the politicians who must water down their vision to the comfort level of the civil service.- Kieron Testart, Former MLA

When the agendas of the politicians and the bureaucrats collide, it is usually the politicians who must water down their vision to the comfort level of the civil service or be shut out entirely from decisions.

When the government developed its carbon tax policy it was a negotiation between federal and territorial bureaucrats without real input from regular MLAs and in spite of the opposition raised by their constituents.

When the government dissolved the independent boards of Aurora College and the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, they brought these formerly arms-length institutions into direct control of civil servants without consulting regular MLAs.

When criticism is brought to the often maligned procurement policies of the government, they are defended tooth and nail by ministers and their departments — despite calls for much needed reform.

In all these cases ministers readily came to the defence of their departments, rather than working across the floor to change what isn't working and welcome input.

A file photo of committee clerk Michael Ball and MLA Frederick Blake Jr. talking at the N.W.T. Legislature in 2018. Former MLA Kieron Testart argues that elected politicians are frequently at odds with bureaucrats. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

This is an all too familiar pattern of a government that enjoys control and exposes the close relationship between cabinet and the highest levels of the public service. 

In the 19th Assembly, newly minted Premier Cochrane eagerly proclaimed an end to the "Old Boys Club."

Testart says Cochrane's decision to fire Weegar came at a big public cost. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Yet her willingness to fire Weegar without consulting her elected colleagues tells a very different story.

It is a decision that bears significant financial cost to the public purse and has potentially derailed the polytechnic university, an initiative crucial to the future of the N.W.T.

Politicians are elected to lead and public servants to follow.

Fearless advice is expected, but sabotage should not be tolerated by anyone serious about doing business differently.

Leadership that moves the bureaucracy outside of its comfort zone is sorely needed in the N.W.T. 

I hope that this new government has the conviction to follow through on its promises and resist bureaucratic pressure to settle for less.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Kieron Testart lives in Yellowknife and is a former member of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. He is a frequent contributor to political discussions in the North and holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Lethbridge and a Certificate in Parliamentary Governance from McGill University.

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