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The NWT’s government almost fell in 2009. The entire system of governance—consensus, with no parties and what was effectively a minority government—was pushed to the brink. Protesters vehemently opposed changes to healthcare that would remove prescription drug cost coverage for a large group of senior citizens and people with chronic health conditions. The premier at the time, Floyd Roland, faced a conflict-of-interest inquiry after being caught in a high-profileaffair with a clerk who sat in on ostensibly private meetings among the opposition. Communication between the cabinet ministers and the regular members—those not in cabinet, who make up the effective opposition—had ground almost to a halt, except for leaks from both sides.

Session opened up on February 4 and MLAs immediately sounded off against cabinet—how could they have confidence in a government that didn’t listen to them? In a premier who, it was said, flaunted that he knew every word that was being said in regular members’ private meetings, whether or not the leak was coming from his girlfriend? (And it was later found that it wasn’t—the mole was someone else.) “Perception is nine-tenths of the law,” said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro on February 6, “and the public perception is that this cabinet is running a dictatorship, not consensus government.”

That same day, regular members—with 11 seats to cabinet’s seven—voted in a block and carried the motion to strike down the changes to healthcare. Hot off a victory, Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen put forth a motion to strip the cabinet and premier of their positions. In the debate leading up to the vote, regular members talked about why they got into politics and how hard it had become to defend the government when citizens put them on the spot in the line for the till at the grocery store. The country had entered a recession, cost of living continued to rise, and the government was consumed with infighting. “To me, this motion is the only thing that I believe they would take seriously,” said Great Slave MLA Glen Abernethy during the debate. “Anything with less potential impact would be soundly ignored by the entity which is cabinet. The beast would go back to its old habits.” Cabinet members replied earnestly and frankly. They too saw that things weren’t working. One minister joked that he picked the wrong time to quit smoking. And cabinet committed to making changes to the way things worked. The motion was defeated, 10 votes to eight, and the government survived.

“People will say it’s unanimity of decision-making. It’s not that. People will think it’s talking things out until we come up with a solution that everyone can live with. It’s not that either.”

Two months later, regular MLAs and cabinet travelled to a lodge in the Northern wilderness and hammered out 10 principles to make this system we call consensus government work. They covered communication-in-good-faith and confidentiality, inclusive decision-making that involves the entire assembly, the role of cabinet to lead and the role of regular members not to be “cabinet-in-waiting” but to be the monitors of the government and to hold it to account.

“Before, we never really had a good way to explain that—consensus government,” says Tim Mercer, clerk of the legislative assembly. (The clerk’s office provides procedural advice to the speaker and regular members.) “People will say it’s unanimity of decision-making. It’s not that. People will think it’s talking things out until we come up with a solution that everyone can live with. It’s not that either.”

The many-sided circle

People in the NWT often joke that they’re waiting for “white smoke” to appear above the legislative assembly after MLAs are elected: just like the selection of the Pope, the appointment of the territorial premier is the result of speeches, promises and closed door meetings. The Territorial Leadership Committee is formed right after the election, and among them they elect a premier and cabinet. “You walk down the hall and there’s two people in a closed-door meeting,” says Bisaro. “Next door there’s another two people in a closed-door meeting. There are very few open doors.”

Then the official speeches are made, the MLAs cast their ballots for speaker, premier and then cabinet. “For [each position] they’ll keep conducting a ballot, dropping the name of the lowest vote-getter from the ballot until a person emerges with the majority of votes,” says Mercer. Cabinet ministers are voted on two at a time—on the first set of ballots, two are chosen from the northern constituencies, then two from Yellowknife, and finally two from the southern constituencies.

Some of the MLAs are brand new to politics, many don’t know each other, a few of them hate each other, others are buddy-buddy—and some are blessed with more charisma than others. Once the premier and cabinet are chosen, the premier gives the ministers their portfolios, and the assembly’s unique dynamic begins to take form.

The seven ministers sit across the circle—a seating arrangement meant to symbolize consensus—from the 11 regular members, in the assembly. From now on, the executive is tasked with leading and the others are tasked with doling out criticism, input on policy and legislation, and putting forth their own private bills, among the myriad other responsibilities of someone elected to represent a constituency. In doing this, regular members always have a trump card: their majority. “We can keep cabinet in line,” says Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley. “Or not.”

With cabinet, solidarity is literally in the rulebook, but the regular members are elected as individuals and remain that way. “This is sort of a view that is accepted when you get there,” says Bisaro, “that you can do your job any way you want and nobody can tell you how to do your job. And members will sometimes state that in meetings when something comes up.” Of these meetings, the Priority and Planning Committee meetings are the closest we have to an opposition caucus. All the regular members are present, and cabinet is not privy to what’s heard. In these meetings, MLAs air their grievances with cabinet, legislation or general government direction. But they can’t always rely on every one of the 10 other members for support when it comes down to the vote. “As P&P chair, I struggle with how to get through to people and say, ‘Look, we are in power here. We can make change,’” says Bisaro. “And if people aren’t willing to agree with the members who want to make change, it’s not going to happen.”

Classic horse-trading: “It’s not one that I particularly like, but it’s a tool. And it’s politics and politics can be dirty and kind of scrappy so, okay, I accept that that goes on.” 

Fracking for shale oil is a particularly divisive issue in the NWT. There’s an ungodly amount of the stuff buried in the Sahtu, but despite the opportunities for jobs and cashflow, people are worried the practice could pollute the NWT’s vast supply of fresh water. Earlier this spring, twin motions levied by regular members—one calling for a temporary moratorium on fracking while the practice is studied, the other calling for a plebiscite to let NWT residents decide whether to frack—could have passed had all the members been present and voted in solidarity. But so much divided them: the timing of a plebiscite, worries the oil projects might get tied up for decades as did the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, and regional tensions, like the thought of Yellowknife, with half of the NWT’s population, being given the opportunity to decide a Sahtu matter. The motions died on the floor. 

In this case, personal ideologies were likely the deciders, but in some votes, the motivation is found deeper in the backroom. “Members are always looking for something for their riding,” says Bromley. “Ministers have the power to decide that.” If a member votes on side with the government, maybe one of their communities (all challenged for infrastructure and investment) gets something it needs. Classic horse-trading. “It’s not one that I particularly like, but it’s a tool,” says Bisaro, “and it’s politics and politics can be dirty and kind of scrappy so, okay, I accept that that goes on.” 

Mercer, for his part, says he’d be the last to know when it happens, but “it does happen, I’m sure.” A lot of times members genuinely vote with their heart, he says. And then sometimes cabinet just wins the argument. And sometimes, members will just vote against something because they don’t like the person who put it forward.

But regular MLAs aren’t supposed to be a cohesive opposition. Cabinet is appointed to lead. If regular members unceasingly wield their majority to influence policy, why have a cabinet at all? A whipped vote on the regular side, says Mercer, would threaten the idea of consensus government. Regular members are an accountability body, but now and then they must dust off their trusty steel and wield Majority in defense of the realm. And sometimes it’s unclear whether a little show of force could result in a deathblow.

In the 16th assembly, regular MLAs made it clear to cabinet they weren’t going to support its 2009 budget. “It freaked cabinet out,” says Bisaro. “They were talking about resigning.” Concessions were made (for example, supplementary health benefits were left untouched) and the budget passed, but it begged an interesting question that had never before been sussed out: if a budget is defeated, does that send the same signal it does in federal Parliament? Is it a vote of non-confidence? Do we head back to the polls? Short answer: no.

“To the extent that any regular member wants to, they could have an immense impact over public policy here."

“What likely would have happened is the minister of finance, and potentially the whole cabinet, would have resigned, which would put us back into a territorial leadership committee,” says Mercer, “but there’s no obligation for them to do that.” If a budget is defeated in consensus government, says Mercer—and things might roll out differently if it ever actually happens—the house would just need a new budget. Full stop. “Members put confidence in our cabinet and they can only withdraw that confidence, in my view, by deliberately doing so by way of a motion to remove them.”

And in the years since the 10 principles were written down, MLAs have had more input into the drafting stages of the budget. There are more conventions surrounding that process, as well as input into legislation and policy. And this is the real meat of consensus government. Behind all the outward civility and backroom politics, there are processes in place that allow regular members to have a level of input into governance that the federal NDP, as opposition in today’s parliament, couldn’t even dream of. “To the extent that any regular member wants to, they could have an immense impact over public policy here,” says Mercer.

‘The entity which is cabinet’

“If you didn’t have cabinet solidarity, you would have internecine strife, friction, I think eventual gridlock, just because things would seize up.” Michael Miltenberger is finishing his 20th year in the NWT’s legislative assembly (and his 14th in cabinet). “You’re a team, and if you’re going to function as a team you have to act like a team,” he says. “When the discussion’s over and the decision’s made, then we move forward together.”

This means they have to bite their tongues if they don’t agree with what the majority of cabinet decides in the backroom. “If you find yourself in a situation that you can’t live with,” says Premier Bob McLeod, “obviously you can take other action. Like resign.”

It’s the price you pay when you get that appointment. “People feel, I think to a certain extent, that when in cabinet they can get more for their constituents than they can if they’re a regular member,” says Bisaro. “It pays more money, it’s a powerful position, you’re in the limelight.”

Miltenberger proudly lists off his accomplishments as environment minister: water strategies with Alberta and B.C., support for a biomass project in Enterprise, a revamped Wildlife Act that almost didn’t make it. “You can do that if you work hard, get the support when you need it, but you have lots of latitude as a minister as well within your portfolio to do things,” says Miltenberger. “It tends to only be limited by your own drive, initiative and creativity.”

But that’s where the old equation once again factors in. “We always need to have some friends at certain points in the process,” says McLeod. “Because ... any time when we need to pass a motion or defeat a motion, we need to get at least three members to vote with us.” There are strategies to get individuals on board, but the regular member caucus as a whole must also be courted. Miltenberger, in his position as government house leader (he is also finance minister), does some of that courting. “One of my jobs on all aspects of government business is to work the halls, talk to the members, find out how things are going, where do things need change, are there irritants, what are they; if we’re moving on some things, how do we move to get it done? It never stops. You’re always trying to work not only formally with committees but also to keep the political pulse of the legislature.”

To keep the peace, cabinet and regular members fall back on the principles set out in that 2009 wilderness retreat. From those principles, conventions of how and when members provide input on policy, legislation and budgets are being clarified and put on paper. These are just conventions, sure—with no legal teeth—but to ignore them, says Mercer, would be “treading on sacred ground.”

On accountability

To Mercer’s knowledge, the consensus style of government wasn’t explicitly decided upon—it just evolved this way as governing responsibilities were gradually devolved to the North. The partisan system seemed “foreign and southern” to the way things had been working in the North. But the lack of parties is just one aspect of this form of government—it doesn’t define it. “What defines consensus government is the way that the executive branch and legislative branch interact with each other,” he says.

The biggest complaint aired about the system is a lack of accountability. Voters do not vote in a party with a platform; they vote in an individual who may end up on either side of the house, one voice among 17. 

“People are going to start to say, ‘Hold on, this is the approach I think we should take.’ And that might open the door to party politics.” 

But the fashion in which that government then operates is far less dysfunctional than its partisan equivalents. Debate in the House of Commons is increasingly banal and childish, and decreasingly influential on public policy. It’s almost laughable to think of the Conservatives and NDP working together on anything. The swaths of Canadians who vote for the party that doesn’t end up in government are effectively silenced. In the NWT, at least, you know if you elect someone who’s ideologically similar to you, they can bring that viewpoint to the table and maybe have some influence here or there.

We might not have this system forever. There is no law against parties organizing. All it would take is for one or two members to get elected on a party platform, and voila, party politics enters stage right. (And this interim period could be interesting: if three are elected in the same party, with the rest independents, imagine the change in dynamic—they could be policy kingmakers, as cabinet would just have to appeal to one ideology for three votes.) Mercer says this system’s worked largely because the legislative assembly has been united against their common enemy: the federal government. But the recent devolution agreement with the federal government is being implemented, and more control over land, water and resources is in territorial hands. Things might change. “The debate will centre around how are we going to manage our resources, and how are we going to manage our money,” says Mercer. “People are going to start to say, ‘Hold on, this is the approach I think we should take.’ And that might open the door to party politics.” 

And if it does, and our politicians are spouting partisan talking points, saying their ideology is the only way, and debate polarizes the way it has in the south, maybe we’ll miss the middle-ground that consensus, at the very least, allows.