The 18th Assembly did a lot, but did it differently, numbers show

A lot of discussion about the previous N.W.T. Legislative Assembly centered around how they spent plenty of time discussing how to govern, but less time passing laws. David Wasylciw uses data to show that sentiment may not be far off.

OpenNWT's David Wasylciw crunches the numbers on the previous gov't prior to Oct. 1 election

The 18th Legislative Assembly did a lot of work over the course over their term, but as David Wasylciw writes, the numbers show that they operated a little differently than past governments. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Editor's note: As part of our 2019 N.W.T. election coverage, David Wasylciw, data geek and founder of OpenNWT, is taking a look at the last Legislative Assembly – breaking down what the numbers tell us about how our government and our politicians work. Most importantly, he explains what this means for you, the voter, ahead of the election on Oct. 1. 

In his first instalment, David looks at how much time the government spent in the legislature, and how that time was used.

Is my MLA effective? Or, even more simply, what did my MLA do for the last four years? 

These are questions voters often ask themselves, or at the very least ask themselves in the lead-up to an election. 

In a world of words, data is a powerful tool we can use to hold them accountable, but it also creates challenges. Before we dive into the numbers, let's be clear – there is no single measure or metric for what makes an effective Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA).  

Some MLAs have a focus on working with residents in their constituencies, others spend more time in committee meetings and the House developing legislation. MLAs living in Yellowknife might have an easier time attending committee meetings since less travel is involved, whereas MLAs that live further away have to balance time in their ridings with time in the legislature. 

Beyond even those differences, the premier, cabinet ministers and the Speaker have a whole other level of responsibility that changes the way they do their jobs. Since there is no single or perfect measure, we are going to take a number of different stats as an overview, comparing them to previous assemblies.

Each of these measures focuses on a different part of the job that our MLAs do. First, the most visible part of the job: days in session. 

How long have they been sitting?

The sessional calendar stays pretty similar year-to-year, depending on priorities and bills to consider. Since 1992, MLAs have spent 1,299 days in session, an average of about 46 days per year.

The 18th Assembly sat for a total of 176 days, an average of 44 days a year. For contrast, the 17th Assembly sat for 182 days, and the 16th Assembly sat for 191 days.

But the number of days in the Assembly is only part of the measure. Let's take it a step further.

We examined each day's Hansard (the record of discussion in the Assembly) for the start and end time of the day, giving us a total time spent in session. Over those 176 days, the 18th Assembly sat for a total of 652.5 hours, whereas the 16th and 17th Assemblies sat for a total of 742.25 hours and 762 hours, respectively. That's quite a few more hours. 

Although the 18th Assembly had only slightly fewer days in session than its two predecessors, it spent significantly less total hours in session - over 100 less than the 16th Assembly. (CBC)

Using time is one measure, but perhaps not the most accurate way to measure effectiveness. As most of us know, tasks have a habit of taking as much, or as little, time as we have. 

Knowing that, and not wanting to encourage the next crop of MLAs to sit longer just to use up more time, we can look at what they were doing with that time.

The most obvious measure of what happens in the Assembly is the number of bills introduced and passed. In brief, the process generally works like this:

Cabinet and regular MLAs work together to develop legislation, regular MLAs study it, and it goes out for public comment. Then, MLAs work together to develop any necessary changes and the final bill is passed. 

In the 18th Assembly, 94 bills were introduced and 92 bills were passed. 

However, once again the 16th and 17th Assemblies passed a few more. The 16th Assembly saw 107 bills introduced and 104 eventually passed, and the 17th Assembly saw 122 bills introduced, with 121 becoming law.

The 18th Assembly passed 92 bills during its lifetime, fewer than both the 17th and 16th Assemblies. (CBC)

Fewer bills, but many more votes

Bills aren't the only thing that causes a vote in the assembly, though. There are many other reasons for MLAs to vote on any given day, including separate motions, adopting reports, changing the sitting hours, or special acknowledgements. 

On these measures, the 18th Assembly has been in overdrive.

Overall in the 18th Assembly there were 402 session votes, with 395 carried (or passed). This is considerably more than the last two assemblies. 

The 16th Assembly had a total of 211 votes, with 207 passed, and the 17th Assembly had a total of 252 votes, with 244 passed.

The 18th Assembly might not have been passing a huge amount of laws, but it was voting in overdrive, with almost twice as many recorded votes as the 16th Assembly. (CBC)

Committee meetings count, too

Session days are a big part of what MLAs do, but there's also a lot that happens behind the scenes. Standing committees of the Assembly meet on a regular basis to discuss bills, legislative proposals, hold public meetings, or hear briefings on government programs. Some of these meetings are public while many are held "in camera" – confidentially. 

There's no information available on how long the meetings were, but we know how many were held.

In total, the 18th Assembly held 870 standing committee and Board of Management meetings. Some of these meetings would have been only an hour, while others could have taken place over several days.

While it's difficult to tell these meetings' content or length, it's clear that the 18th Assembly held more meetings than previous Assemblies, with the 16th Assembly having held 750, and the 17th Assembly having held 762.

The 18th Legislative Assembly held considerably more standing committee meetings than its two predecessors, though it's difficult to tell the duration of each meeting - some could be as short as an hour, others multiple days. (CBC)

So, what does all this mean? Throughout the 18th Assembly, there were many instances of MLAs saying that they were doing a lot, and that they didn't have enough legislation to show for it. The numbers seem to agree. It's clear through the data that the 18th Assembly spent a little less time in session, but more time holding standing committee meetings.

Does this mean MLAs of the 18th Assembly were or weren't effective?

Well, it's not as easy as that. What the data shows here is that outgoing MLAs spent their four years doing things a bit differently than previous assemblies. 

About the Author

David Wasylciw

Founder, OpenNWT

David Wasylciw is a small business owner and an advocate for more open and accountable government. In 2014, he founded OpenNWT, a non-profit that develops tools to make government information accessible to the public.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.