What is consensus government?

There are no political parties in Nunavut's legislature. So how does that work?

A primer on Nunavut's non-partisan legislative assembly

An inside view of Nunavut's legislative assembly. (Google)

The Nunavut government is unusual in that it operates under consensus-style government. There is no strict definition of consensus government but its chief characteristic is that there are no political parties.

Candidates in the Nunavut election run as independents. After the election, members of the legislative assembly meet to elect a Speaker, premier and individual cabinet ministers from among themselves in a public forum. The premier then assigns cabinet portfolios. There is no set number of cabinet seats, but cabinet cannot form a majority in the house.

Consensus-style government is believed to be more in line with traditional Inuit decision-making. However, it does not mean that all decisions are made unanimously. In many cases, a majority vote is enough.

Nunavut inherited its consensus-style of government from the Northwest Territories, the only other jurisdiction in Canada to use this system.

The appeal of consensus government

Outsiders sometimes look to the consensus governments of the North as a better alternative to party politics run amok, and a way to tone down the jeering, heckling and lack of decorum that has become the norm in the House of Commons.

Nunavut’s legislature is indeed notable for its relative civility. There is little shouting or heckling and members are rarely, if ever, interrupted. No member of the Nunavut legislature faces down the opposition backed by a phalanx of party faithful.

However, it’s difficult to know how much to attribute this to non-partisan politics, and how much to a culture that values respect, listening and co-operation (and has little time for adversarial behaviour of any kind).

What’s missing without parties?

Consensus government also has its critics.

A casual observer of the Nunavut legislature in action will note that the cabinet serves at the defacto governing party, with the regular MLAs serving as the opposition. That is, a party system without the parties.

The other major criticism is that without party politics, elections are often decided based on personal or family connections rather than major issues. It’s up to individual candidates to present a platform, but with no party to back them, election promises will be unconvincing.

In Nunavut, a large amount of time in the House is spent discussing issues relating directly to the MLAs' home communities (such as infrastructure or concerns about local nurses). Ideological debates on how to tackle the territory’s persistent problems are rare. For example, few MLAs take an ideology-driven position on how to solve the territory’s housing crisis, or whether or not to liberalize liquor sales.

What about the Nunavut land claim?

Nunavut was created as a result of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. However, the Government of Nunavut is a public government accountable to all the people of Nunavut, Inuit and non-Inuit.

The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement is administered by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. It’s NTI’s job to ensure that the rights outlined in the land claim are respected. This includes monitoring the activities of the Government of Nunavut and in many cases, working with the GN to improve the lives of land claim beneficiaries. NTI is governed by its own board, elected by beneficiaries over the age of 16.


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