N.W.T. MLAs lukewarm on proposal to institute party-like discipline

A group of Northwest Territories lawmakers agreed that regular MLAs need more resources to effectively scrutinize cabinet, but largely dismissed a move to allow them to operate more like an opposition party.

Abernethy accuses Testart of back-door effort to continue push toward party political system

The N.W.T. legislature's Standing Committee on Transitional Matters met Friday to consider changes to consensus government to recommend to the next legislative assembly. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

A group of Northwest Territories lawmakers agreed that regular MLAs need more resources to effectively scrutinize cabinet, but largely dismissed a move to allow them to operate more like an opposition party.

On Friday, members of the special committee on transitional matters considered recommending changes to the next government, designed to make consensus government more effective.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart suggested establishing a regular members' caucus, with its own budget and rules and the right to kick out members who are not following those rules.

Regular members — MLAs who are not in cabinet — already routinely meet as a group behind closed doors as members of the standing committee on priorities and planning. But Testart says the committee has no authority to discipline members for poor attendance, failing to prepare for or contribute to meetings, unethical behavior, or for failing to follow through on voting strategies the committee agrees to follow.

"This institution ... has to have checks and balances built into it to be effective," said Testart. "That's what this proposal is about. It's about how do we be innovative in developing the kinds of tools to help elected officials do their jobs better."

A discussion paper Testart submitted to the transition committee provided a glimpse into the lack of cohesiveness among regular MLAs this assembly. In it, Testart said many regular members do not even feel free to speak in their committee, out of fear the discussion will be relayed to cabinet.

In key votes during this assembly, three MLAs have repeatedly voted with cabinet and against their non-cabinet colleagues: Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely, Mackenzie Delta MLA Frederick Blake and Nunakput MLA Herb Nakimayak.

"We're always being pressured into voting a particular way," said Blake. "To me, that's not consensus government."

Blake said other regular MLAs showed little interest in the issues facing smaller communities. He said he's always going to vote in the interests of his communities, rather than the N.W.T. as a whole.

Great Slave MLA and health minister Glen Abernethy said the relationship-building required of consensus government makes it a superior system to party politics. He said the changes Testart recommended are a back-door effort to continue his push toward a system of party politics.

Testart is proposing to run a slate of candidates supporting the same policy platform in the next territorial election.

"I'd hate to be in an assembly where I didn't have the opportunity to speak freely and vote the way I think is fair," said Abernethy, a cabinet minister. Abernethy said the cabinet solidarity he's obliged to follow is different than the solidarity Testart is recommending for regular MLAs.

"We're always in a minority position," he said. "We have to make tough decisions and sometimes having the support of our colleagues in cabinet is important to getting some of those issues across the table."

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly said cabinet solidarity is one of the big advantages cabinet has over regular MLAs. He said Testart's proposal is an honest effort to improve the way consensus government works.

"I don't think consensus government is working very well. I don't know if that's because of personalities or what, but it hasn't been working well in this assembly," O'Reilly said.

Though there was no agreement on the proposal to make regular members operate as a more cohesive unit, the majority of MLAs at the meeting said regular MLAs need more staff and resources to effectively hold cabinet to account.


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