Mark Rendell

Cabinet Building: How Your Government Gets Made

Ex-ministers Miltenberger and Ramsay give the inside scoop on the intense, "Survivor"-style politics that go into creating government post-election.

“It’s like Survivor, not for the faint of heart,” says David Ramsay. And no, the outgoing cabinet minister is not talking about a new season of Ice Lake Rebels.

Over the coming weeks, MLAs will be immersed in the intense and secretive process of choosing a new premier and cabinet for the territory. In our consensus system, voters don’t pick the government; they elect MLAs, who then vote amongst themselves for a premier and cabinet.

“I’ve always said it’s very similar to electing the pope,” says outgoing finance minister Michael Miltenberger.

Let the games begin

The actual voting doesn’t happen until Dec. 17th, but the intense jockeying for position starts long before.

“Even before the election results come in, people are on the phone talking to people who they think are going to be winning the various ridings,” says Ramsay. “Then the next day of course, the congratulatory phone messages go out, and it’s always couched with, ‘Well, I’ll talk to you soon.’ You always know what that’s about.”

In the weeks following an election (the interregnum we’re currently in) you can see the alliances forming in coffee shops, over dinner and in the halls of the Legislative Assembly. Because the standing rule (which may be changed this time, though it’s unlikely) is to elect two cabinet ministers from the north, Yellowknife and the south respectively, alliances often coalesce along regional lines.

“If you’re a guy from the north, you’re more apt to support an MLA who wants to be premier from the north, because then you’re going to get an additional cabinet seat,” says Ramsay.

It’s also a game of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine’ – “a very fluid and dynamic process,” as Miltenberger puts it, “Where folks agree to support each other for cabinet.”

“It can get down into capital projects [being promised in return for support] in certain ridings,” says Ramsay. “Though usually it’s support for support.”

“And when you’re trying to curry favour or get somebody to try to support you, oftentimes the speaker’s seat is thrown out. It’s not only cabinet and the premier, the speaker’s part in all of this shouldn’t be underestimated, because it’s a key chip in the horse trading that takes place, or it can be.”

It’s by no means a clean process; members frequently offer someone support only to stab them in the back at the ballot box. In 2007, Ramsay says he was sure he’d secured enough support, only to be shut out.

“It was just gut-wrenching… People just lie to your face, they say they’ll support you and they don’t.”

“What you do during your [previous] four years really matters. If you’re too hard on certain members or too hard on the government, it comes back to haunt you, and it did for me in 2007. When I sought a cabinet seat there were still some hard feelings between some of the members of cabinet over how I was dealing with them on the Deh Cho bridge, so it cost me a seat those four years.”

Because there are 11 new MLAs, the process might not be as gruesome this time around, with aspiring political veterans shut out at the last minute. But it can also be a very intense process for newcomers trying to learn the ropes of their new jobs while being bombarded with invitations to ‘chat.’

Do people get intimidated into voting one way? “I’ve seen it happen, absolutely,” says Ramsay. “If you’re a new member you can be intimidated by people who have been there for a long time.”

How the sausage gets made

The day of the vote, cabinet hopefuls from each region put their names forward and give a short speech, usually around 15 minutes, explaining their credentials and why they’re seeking the position. Because department portfolios aren’t allocated until after the vote, would-be cabinet members are running to be in government, not to be minister of this or that specific portfolio. The aspirant premiers then make a speech of up to 20 minutes length each, followed by a Q&A where the rest of the members test their mettle.

In some sense, the speeches are little more than theatre. “By the time speeches roll around most members have their mind made up on who they’re supporting,” says Ramsay. “Maybe it’s a personal friendship, maybe it’s something they’ve offered them down the road, maybe it’s, ‘Well, they’re going to support me for cabinet so I’m going to support them for cabinet.’ Could be a whole variety of reasons, but the public never gets to see what the reasons are.”

So what makes a winner? “The people that do well in there are the people that get along well with everybody,” says Ramsay.

Voting happens by secret ballot, with the speaker elected first (who then runs the rest of the show), then the premier, then the cabinet. Finally the heads of standing committees are voted in. Typically the 11 regular members choose from amongst themselves for this last vote, though Miltenberger says there’s been a push to change this, so the whole assembly elects committee heads.

Forming government

Once the cabinet has been chosen, it’s up to the new premier to decide who’s in charge of what. Over the following days, the premier meets with each new minister to assess his or her skills and interests, and then, advised by the GNWT’s two ranking bureaucrats, Secretary to Cabinet Penny Ballantyne and Principal Secretary Garry Bohnet, hands out the portfolios.

“Finance is probably most high-profile. The finance minister is usually a senior cabinet minister,” says Ramsay. “And there are some big departments that require a lot of attention like Health and Education.”

So who’s going to win?

With such a massive shakeup, it’s hard to say how the paint will dry.

For Premier? “I think there’s going to be a race,” says Ramsay. “Whether it’s [Tom] Beaulieu, Jackson Lafferty and Bob McLeod, or if Mr. [Glen] Abernethy throws his hat in the ring, it’s going to be interesting. I think any one of them is capable of being the premier.”

For cabinet? Well, with only eight returning members, there will almost inevitably be some freshman MLAs wriggling their way onto cabinet. There were four incumbents re-elected in the north, so we’re likely to see two familiar faces hailing from that geographic cohort. In Yellowknife it really depends on whether Abernethy or McLeod becomes premier. If not, they’re likely to be the two YK ministers. If so, one of our five new representatives will get to sit at the cabinet table; likely one of the female MLAs, Julie Green or Caroline Cochrane, says Ramsay.

In the south, things are more open, with only Tom Beaulieu and Michael Nadli being returned to office. If Beaulieu doesn’t get the premiership, he’ll very likely be on cabinet. But Nadli? With all the public outcry over his re-election, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to wrangle the support of his colleagues, especially new members not acquainted with his work as an MLA.  

Of course, with change the word of the day, all predictions could go totally sideways. Could a brand-new MLA become premier?

“It would be a first,” says Miltenberger. “You would need somebody very strong and charismatic who catches the fantasy of the members.”

But of course “there’s nothing stopping folks from getting together if there’s ten of them, starting a party, naming a leader and away you go,” says Ramsay. “You got eleven new members in there. If they want change, they’re capable of getting it. Let’s put it this way: if the eleven of them got together, they could pick a leader and just form government. That’s just how it works.”