North·NWT Votes 2019

Here's how the next premier of the N.W.T. will be chosen

Congratulations, you’ve elected a new government of the Northwest Territories. Now it’s time for them to pick a leader.

‘It’s kind of like Survivor,’ says former cabinet minister

Newly elected MLAs will choose the next premier of the N.W.T. by secret ballot on Oct. 24. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Congratulations, you've just elected 19 new MLAs to the Legislative Assembly of the N.W.T.

But you don't have a government yet.

That's because the next few weeks will be taken up with Machiavellian machinations, as politicians jostle for prestigious posts in cabinet — and the top job of premier.

Nothing about the process is formally in law. It's also mostly hidden from public view, so don't think it will be easy to follow along.

The 19 new MLAs are ultimately the ones in charge. They'll have to approve a draft calendar in the first few days after the election for any of the following to happen.

Here's how things should shake out over the next few weeks.

Negotiations have already begun

In public, most prospective MLAs won't say one way or the other if they want a job in cabinet, and they're even less clear about potential bids for premier.

Several candidates told CBC they had been approached by others to mount a bid, but wouldn't say outright they planned to put their names forward.

But that doesn't prevent negotiations in private, well ahead of election day.

"I knew most of the people who were going to get elected," said Stephen Kakfwi, who was premier from 2000 to 2003, "so it started before the election."

Jackson Lafferty, acclaimed as Monfwi's MLA for the second time this year, would only say he'd "seriously consider" a bid for premier after Oct. 1. — but that didn't prevent him from calling candidates shortly after nominations closed.

"And once all 19 of us get into the Legislative Assembly, there will be more discussion, behind closed doors," he said.

MLAs will have lots of time to chat about their options. For the first time, new and returning members will spend a full week together in orientation sessions before they're sworn in on Oct. 11.

The new MLAs of the 18th Assembly changed the process for choosing the premier, introducing a week delay between speeches and a secret vote. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Oct 18: Territorial leadership committee begins

Bids for premier become official on Oct. 18, when candidates will put their names forward at the territorial leadership committee.

Premier hopefuls will stand before the assembly and make their case in 20 minute speeches. Wannabe cabinet ministers, too, will get a chance to talk about their platform.

From there, the backroom deals accelerate, as newly minted MLAs form voting blocs based on the promise of cabinet appointments.

"We'll see what alliances form. There will be a number of those," said Dave Ramsay, who served in cabinet from 2011 to 2015. "It's kind of like Survivor in many ways, but it's the process we've got."

Those alliances can have big consequences for the next four years.

"You have to be careful how you treat each other," said Kakfwi.

Kakfwi said after a group of MLAs, including former premier Floyd Roland, said they couldn't support his bid for premier, he shut them out of cabinet.

"You cannot have a dissident cabinet minister," he said. "They became, unfortunately, the opposition — the group that tried for four years to take me out."

That same pattern emerged in the 18th Assembly, where a group of four regular MLAs from Yellowknife ridings accounted for the bulk of nay votes in the legislature.

But like in other parliamentary systems, as long as the opposition stays small, it really isn't a factor.

Outgoing Premier Bob McLeod told Cabin Radio by the end of his tenure, he had stopped working with some regular MLAs altogether.

"The reality is, in consensus government, you can operate with a cabinet and three friends," he said.

Who wants to be the next premier of the N.W.T.?

3 years ago
Duration 2:51
Nothing is official (or final) yet — but here's who said they'd consider a bid for the territory's top job.

Oct. 24: Secret ballot for speaker, cabinet and premier

For the first time in 2015, MLAs introduced a delay between speeches and voting for speaker, premier, and cabinet.

The delay gives MLAs a chance to consult with their constituents. They'll also use the time to set the priorities of government — a precursor to the mandate prepared later by cabinet.

Voting begins with the selection of a speaker, then moves on to premier.

After that, the 19 MLAs choose cabinet ministers from among their number — with the premier-elect's vote counting the same as everyone else's.

By convention, cabinet chooses two cabinet ministers from northern ridings (including Monfwi), two from southern ridings (including Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh), and two from Yellowknife.

But that might not be the case for much longer. A report from the last assembly's Special Committee on Transition Matters said the convention "encourages strategic voting … [and] does not necessarily result in the 'most qualified' cabinet."

Alternatives included dividing the seats between small communities, regional centres, and Yellowknife, or allocating by population and guaranteeing a third seat to Yellowknife. They could even add a member, or take one away.

Once they're chosen, cabinet ministers won't be given their portfolios right away — so technically, ministers are being selected not for their area of expertise, but for their overall leadership qualifications.

"It's all personal stuff, you know?" said Kakfwi. "Personalities, perception, I like this guy, I don't trust this guy ... Based on what, you know?"

Sometimes, the selection process can go awry. Kakfwi said in 1984, Bruce McLaughlin, the MLA for Pine Point, was voted into cabinet to the surprise of other members.

"They thought no one is going to vote for him," said Kakfwi, "so they threw their votes to him, and he ended up getting into cabinet."

Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod arrives to take part in a meeting of First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

A new system?

All this convention could be thrown out the window — after all, until 2015, no premier had served more than one term.

Some candidates have suggested the 19th Assembly should be the ones to make fundamental changes to the territory's political system.

In the last assembly, MLA Kieron Testart raised the idea of introducing party politics with a slate of 2019 candidates — a commitment he later backed down from.

More common is the suggestion that voters should be more involved in the selection of the leader.

"He's not there because you liked his ideas or the direction he wanted to take the territory," wrote NNSL managing editor Mike Bryant in an editorial last month. "Right now the N.W.T. premier is the MLAs' premier, not the people's." 

It's not a new criticism. A 2011 editoral in the Northern Journal called the N.W.T. "not a true democracy."

"This particularly rankles when the premier, who is selected by the other 18 members of government, is acclaimed in his or her own riding," the editorial continues.

Already, two acclaimed MLAs — Lafferty and Hay River North's R.J. Simpson — have said they'll bid for premier.

But for Lafferty, the fact no one voted for him shouldn't mean he can't be premier.

"In my view, we've earned where we're at today," he said.


John Last


John Last is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Padua, Italy. For the past four years, he covered Northern Canada and the Arctic for CBC North. His reporting work has taken him through Europe, the Middle East and the American South.


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