N.W.T. Legislative Assembly still shrouds itself in secrecy

The Northwest Territories government has been slow to increase transparency, partly because the people whose work it hides — the MLAs — are also the only ones who can open its doors to the public.

MLAs have the power, but are slow to bring more transparency to legislature

A view of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly chamber. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

During daily guided tours of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly, visitors are told the glass doors and walls that dominate the interior of the building symbolize the transparency of the territory's consensus style of government.

Brick would be far more appropriate.

It's one of the few forms of parliamentary democracy where all elected members routinely meet behind closed doors. Meetings of standing committees — where much of the debate on legislation and policy happens — are also closed to the public by default.

Two weeks after the Nov. 23 territorial election, newly-elected MLAs will gather as a group, again customarily behind closed doors, to decide how they will select the premier and cabinet that will lead the territory for the next four years. Typically that happens by secret ballot vote.

The lack of transparency and accountability may be why voters are growing less and less interested in participating in territorial elections. Voter turnout has been on a steady decline for the last 24 years. Last election, for the first time, fewer than half of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots. Twenty years ago, 76 per cent showed up to vote.

Selection of premier and cabinet

One of the reasons the legislature has been so slow to shed its shroud of secrecy is that the people whose work it hides — the MLAs — are also the only ones who can make government more transparent.

An example is the way the premier and cabinet are selected and the closed meeting beforehand to decide how that selection will take place.

"If they wanted to have that discussion in public, there's nothing preventing them from doing so," says Tim Mercer, clerk of the legislative assembly.

It's typically not a very lively debate, says one former Yellowknife MLA.

"In my terms of government, from 1999 to 2007, there was very little discussion of changing the process or amending it," says Bill Braden.

Though the selection of the new premier is officially done on the floor of the legislative assembly, Braden says many of the selections are already arranged during private conversations in the assembly building's hallways and offices.

"There's a huge amount of negotiating, of deal-making, of collaboration that goes on behind the scenes," says Braden, the former MLA for Great Slave. "I didn't like that part of the process. In fact, I think there's some of that going on right now prior to the election. It's a given that incumbents stand a very good chance of being elected or acclaimed again. The sort of pecking order or power levels are well-known already among those incumbents."

Mercer says MLAs are completely free to devise whatever process they want for selecting the premier, cabinet and speaker. He says even if MLAs decide to continue to vote in their leaders by secret ballot, there's nothing preventing individual MLAs from stating publicly who they voted for.

"I think one of the concerns with having a public vote or a non-secret vote is the impact it can have on relationships afterwards, after the vote takes place," Mercer said. "I think for the most part, members want to keep that personal as opposed to making it public and having to develop relationships afterward based on how you voted."

Outgoing Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley wants to see the premier and cabinet elected by MLAs via secret ballot.
Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley puts it more bluntly.

"Will there be any blowback from a person I did not support if he gets into a powerful position? I think that's in the back of members' minds."

Bromley says he hasn't been the target of that kind of vindictiveness, but he says he's seen other MLAs suffer consequences for criticizing cabinet publicly.

Bromley says for that reason he supports holding the vote for premier and cabinet by secret ballot, though he adds he would like to see the public have a greater role in picking the premier and cabinet.

Braden says MLAs should show who they vote for and be accountable to their constituents for it.

"It would certainly be a test of just how well everybody could get along, you know appreciating we're all going to have differences with each other from time to time....So to be able to show your hand right off the bat and defend it, be accountable, explain why you voted the way you did. I think that would be a healthy thing."

Closed committees

Much of the hard work of the legislative assembly takes place in committee rooms. Before bills, policy changes and spending decisions are discussed in public, MLAs spend hours debating them in private committee meetings.

In the House of Commons and the provinces, committee meetings are, by default, open to the public. In consensus government, the meetings are, as a rule, closed to the public.

According to the legislative assembly, approximately 24 of 202 committee meetings held in 2014 were open to the public. So far in 2015 committees have met 140 times. The public has been allowed into 44 of those meetings. It's unclear how many of the meetings the public was welcome to attend were public hearings on legislation.

Part of the rationale MLAs use to justify closed committee meetings has to do with a major difference between consensus government and party politics — under consensus there is an expectation that cabinet will share information with regular members before it's made public. In party politics, opposition parties typically find out about government initiatives the same time the public does.

Mercer offers the impending appointment of a new languages commissioner as an illustration of the need for some confidentiality.

"We want to make sure all members have a chance to discuss that appointment in camera prior to the motion being considered so if any of them have legitimate concerns or questions about the person being recommended, they get a chance to express those concerns privately as opposed to potentially embarrassing the individual in public."

Typically, there is little to no public debate of such appointments. A motion is made on the floor of the legislative assembly, seconded, and passed.

But when there is public debate, do the views expressed by MLAs differ from what they say in closed meetings?

"I don't feel comfortable answering that," Bromley said. "For myself, no. But there are certainly views that don't get aired except behind closed doors."

There's good reason for MLAs to be uncomfortable about referring to anything said in closed committee meetings — if they do, they run the risk of incurring the full wrath of their colleagues.

"If a ... member decides to willfully release information that was provided to them in confidence," says Mercer, "then they are subject to the disciplinary powers of the committee and the legislature, and those range from censure all the way up to, in extreme cases, suspension."

Mercer points out that the 17th assembly has taken some steps toward opening up the meetings. The public has been allowed into more committee briefings from cabinet on issues that have already been made public.