High turnover at N.W.T. legislature could be challenging for new MLAs: ministers

Current and former MLAs say newly-elected members may struggle to carry out their mandate if experience is lacking.

Current and former ministers say inexperienced cabinet could make big reforms difficult

A view of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly chamber. Four long-serving MLAs, including three cabinet ministers, have announced they will not be seeking re-election this fall. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

No matter what happens in October's election, the Northwest Territories will see big changes in the Legislative Assembly.

Already, four MLAs have announced they will not seek re-election, including three of seven cabinet ministers. 

Among them are the ministers responsible for some of the government's most important portfolios — Health Minister Glen Abernethy, Housing Minister Alfred Moses, and Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod.

Regular MLA Tom Beaulieu, who has served since 2007 and held a number of cabinet portfolios, will also be stepping down.

Two-term Premier Bob McLeod, meanwhile, has yet to announce his intentions.

The turnover at the top could have big implications for the 19th Assembly, according to current and former MLAs.

Turnover could strengthen bureaucracy: former minister

Michael Miltenberger, a former cabinet minister in two governments, said the new assembly will need "strong ministers" to avoid being stymied by the territory's bureaucracy.

"Bureaucrats … deputies, long-serving folks, they think in decades," said Miltenberger. "They see MLAs come, they see MLAs go, and they start to think that they're the ones in charge."

"This incoming assembly is going to want to make clear that the bureaucratic tail is not wagging the legislative dog," he said.

Close-up of man.
Michael Miltenberger, a former cabinet minister in two governments, says the incoming assembly should 'make clear that the bureaucratic tail is not wagging the legislative dog.' (CBC)

Miltenberger held his first cabinet portfolio during the 14th Assembly, when only eight incumbents won re-election. That assembly had to navigate the immediate aftermath of the partition of the territory and the creation of Nunavut.

"I spent more time … fighting the opposition of the senior deputies than I did actually trying to do the work of government," he said.

"The biggest part of that work was making sure you watched your flanks and rear."

New MLAs look for big changes 

For much of the latter half of the 18th Assembly, MLAs have said in interviews and in the assembly they felt they set an unwieldy agenda as a group, with a mandate that was too broad. 

"I don't think the MLAs took enough time to decide whether or not those mandate items were achievable," MLA Beaulieu said. "Trying to get them to reduce the size of the mandate was a battle." 

The 11 new MLAs elected in 2015 contributed to that, since many wanted to make sure their campaign promises would be carried out, he said.

MLA Tom Beaulieu is one of the legislature's most experienced members, first elected in 2007. (CBC)

"Everybody wants to put their campaign promises in the mandate," Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu said he expects to see a few incumbents lose their seats. He predicted that at least seven women will be elected this fall, up from the two — Julie Green and Caroline Cochrane — who were elected in 2015. 

For the next assembly, he suggested new MLAs manage their expectations of what can get done within the four-year term.

"They shouldn't go in there, starting to pound the table saying they want to make change," he said.

Relationships matter 

Finance Minister McLeod has represented the riding of Inuvik Twin Lakes for more than a decade and has been in cabinet since 2008. 

Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod says the new MLAs should set a clear list of priorities and start working on them right away. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

He, too, said turnover is inherent in consensus government and said it's often on re-elected MLAs to get new members up to speed on how to work within the system. 

McLeod said developing the mandate at the beginning of the 18th Assembly and the midterm review in 2017 took up significant portions of time that could have been spent developing legislation. 

"We came in and we started on a mandate with 235 commitments on it. It took a lot of time, energy and resources to put that mandate together," he said. "We could have come in, set our priorities and gotten to work.

He said it wasn't until after the midterm review that the assembly was able to "buckle down and get to work."

"And you're seeing the result of that in the log jam in the number of bills coming at the end of the assembly." 

His advice for new MLAs in the fall? Set a clear list of priorities and start working on them right away.


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