Is consensus government, brainchild of Sir Frederick Haultain (above), a 19th century relic? | Illustration by Augustus Kenderdine
On EDGE | Opinion
Yukon premier Darrell Pasloski’s decision to fight the next territorial election on the future of the Peel Watershed is an assertion that elected authority trumps a court ruling. It’s either political suicide or a calculated gamble.
However it plays, the escalating battle over the Peel underscores the fundamental difference between the way governing gets done in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Pasloski and his Yukon Party risk a drubbing from the electorate if the issue breaks against them; here in the NWT, voters never get a chance to punish an administration for its hubris and shortcomings.
Policies without consequence
Yukon voters said goodbye to non-partisan governance in 1978, and the Conservatives and like-minded Yukon Party have dominated since, winning five of nine elections. Hence Pasloski’s confidence.
Pasloski could possibly up the ante in the run-up to the election, and break the current deadlock on hydraulic fracturing by allowing the controversial practice in the Yukon, despite hearing from residents at well-attended public meetings that they would rather not frack.
Meanwhile, consensus politics here means that NWT voters who disagree with their government’s rubber-stamp approval of fracking in the Sahtu can’t do more than bounce Norman Yakeleya, Dave Ramsay and Michael Miltenberger. But that wouldn’t guarantee a reversal of government policy, at least not in the same way as voting an unpopular government out of office could.
It’s not that NWT voters aren’t asked for their opinions. They have been endlessly canvassed on energy and economic issues, at events characterized mainly by low attendance, a clear enough indication that the government isn’t connecting with the public.
Secrets, horse-trades and back-scratching
The public is left out of key decisions, such as who will lead the government. These decisions are made, as much as possible, behind closed doors. Committee meetings are barred to the media and MLAs outside the cabinet are sworn to secrecy: a bizarre practice given that they are all public servants doing public business. The result is an electorate so alienated they no longer bother to vote.
Voter participation in the NWT has been in free-fall for a decade. In 2011, just 48 percent of voters cast ballots, and several MLAs ran unopposed, including Bob McLeod, who was named premier in the traditional secret horse-trading and back-scratching sessions that follow every election.
In the Yukon, partisan politics and the opportunity to choose the government have spurred residents to exercise their franchise. Turnouts in the Yukon rose from 65 percent in the two elections leading up to 1978, the year they put non-partisan politics behind them, to an average of 75 percent in subsequent elections.
The path to parties
Yukon voters and legislators started their march toward partisan politics when the Progressive Conservatives and NDP fielded candidates. In 1974, voters elected 11 independents, two Liberals and one NDP. Chris Pearson, regarded as the father of the current system, described the situation:
“Executive committee members continued to find themselves on the defensive, without any solid or consistent support to have government legislation approved… It was realized that the only system that would work was the traditional party system.”
After four years of frustration, the independents who had argued against partisan politics revealed themselves as Progressive Conservatives. The ruling party chose Pearson as leader and selected the cabinet, also ending the presence of a federally-appointed commissioner on the executive council.
There was initial uncertainty about the introduction of partisan government in the territory, but the idea found serious traction, and, some argue, would likely have continued even without the support of Joe Clark’s sympathetic, but short-lived, federal regime.
Clinging to the past
All this happened as the NWT obsessed over land claims and pipelines in the Mackenzie Valley, while clinging to a governance model first envisioned by Frederick Haultain, premier of the territories (from 1897 to 1905), and a 19th-century eccentric who thought the population too sparse to support partisan politics. It took 80 years, but the Yukon has proved him wrong.
NWT politicians have flirted more than once with the idea of re-creating the Yukon experience, but so far voters have mostly turned their backs on partisan candidates. As a result, there has been no determined effort to challenge the consensus model in more than a decade. It’s a Pandora’s Box, but maybe it’s time to re-open it.