Consensus government works for NWT: Handley

Consensus government works for the Northwest Territories, and for Premier Joe Handley. It’s a lot different from Yukon government, where three…

Consensus government works for the Northwest Territories, and for Premier Joe Handley.

It’s a lot different from Yukon government, where three political parties joust for power and assume entrenched roles as government and opposition.

In the NWT, there are no parties at the territorial level.

And that suits the NWT’s small population of 44,000 people, Handley said in an interview recently.

“It functions, I think, very well,” he said

“We’re happy with it. There is no great move to form parties and have elections by party.

“Being political creatures, most of us belong to one political party or another, but we’re not elected by nominations and so on.

“We each run independently in our constituencies.”

Once elected, the 19 MLAs of the NWT assembly select seven cabinet ministers, including a premier, and a Speaker for the house.

“Two are selected from the northern part of the territory, two are from Yellowknife, where 40 per cent of the population resides.

“Two are from the southern part of the territories. That always ensures that there is a balance of representation.”

Eleven other MLAs sit as the opposition.

“Because they are not required to vote along party lines or party positions, everybody is free to vote any way they want, except for cabinet ministers.

“Cabinet ministers vote (for) the cabinet position.”

Cabinet typically includes MLAs with positions representative of Canada’s three major political parties: Liberal, Conservative and NDP.

The NWT has traditionally been Liberal, he noted.

The NDP has tried to bring party politics to the NWT assembly to no avail, said Handley.

“Quite a few of the members are Liberal,” said Handley.

“That does affect their philosophy, their approach to life, the way they make their decisions.

“The electorate know that and choose to elect them.”

Consensus does not necessarily mean unanimous decisions for every bill or proposal that comes forward, he added.

“Everybody gets a chance to speak to it. Very rarely do we have people speaking twice on a bill.”

Recommendations to government come from opposition benches, and cabinet members do not speak on them.

But opposition members cannot ask to spend the NWT’s finances, worth $1.1 billion.

“They can ask us to take things out of the budget, but they cannot force us to spend money,” said Handley.

With a massive capital project on the horizon — the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline — it’s essential that NWT communities have proper representation, so their concerns are heard, he said.

“On a big issue like that, everybody realizes that it is such a big bonus for the territories that there is unanimous support.

“There are people who say we have to have protected areas identified and confirmed before the pipeline goes ahead.”

The Yukon’s population is even smaller than the NWT’s — roughly 33,000.

In an election year, one independent-minded citizen is trying to resurrect the consensus model in the Yukon’s legislative assembly.

“If (an MLA) is representing his riding, what he should be doing is representing people’s views, not a political platform,” said Kenn Roberts, a Whitehorse businessman who is hoping to attract enough interest in an “independence forum” to fill a full slate of independent candidates in the Yukon’s 18 ridings.

“A consensus government would offer an opportunity to represent the people at the grassroots level,” Roberts told a news conference last week.

“Each person in each riding will have to run as an independent, and if things work out positively they would win their riding, and if they are in the majority, or even minority, you have a consensus.”

The Yukon followed a consensus-government model until 1979, when party politics took over.

The consensus style lacked transparency, said assembly clerk Patrick Michael.

“Consensus decision-making is very difficult to do in public,” said Michael, who first worked as clerk in 1977.

“There would be private meetings, when a decision couldn’t be swung in the house. The members would step out and come back with an announcement.

“You wouldn’t know how a decision was made and you wouldn’t know the decisions behind it, because it wasn’t done in public.”

Such concerns are not a significant problem in the NWT, said Handley.

“People know you, and they tend to elect people they trust to represent, or at least they know where we stand.

“I find the public want you to lay out where you stand on every issue.”

But Handley doubts the Yukon will revert to the consensus model.

“It’s more difficult, once you have party politics, to go back to a (non-party) government than it is to maintain a consensus or to go from consensus to party politics.

“I sense people (in the NWT) are happy with the government they have now and, in fact, they would scratch their heads and wonder how party politics would work with our small population.”