Politics
Mark Rendell

Exit Interview: Bob Bromley Speaks His Mind

In a frank and wide-ranging discussion, the departing MLA talks about the highs and lows of his political career, the us-versus-them realities of consensus government, and which planet the Premier is on.

After two terms, Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley will be stepping away from politics following November’s territorial election. EDGE caught up with him last week to chat about his accomplishments and his failures, and hear his thoughts on consensus government and Bob McLeod’s premiership.

After eight years, what has prompted you to leave politics?

I got started a little late in politics compared to my colleagues, and my birthday is my last day as an MLA. I’ll be 65. There was something poetic about that. There are still other things I’d like to do.

It’s probably not surprising that it’s a frustrating experience. Moving government to change is a very daunting process and a very slow process in many areas.

What did you hope to accomplish when you came in two terms ago?

I’m a scientist by training, and my experience had been primarily on the environmental side of the equation, so environmental concerns were driving me into politics. The challenges that humankind are facing are clear, especially right here in the Northwest Territories. Yet our leaders do not seem to grasp the scale of those problems – primarily climate change, but related, cost of living and the practical everyday things that are driving people away – those are things I wanted to tackle.

I don’t think I came in unrealistically, I just came in fresher and willing to put the energy into it. Now I’m getting to the point where I’m not. But I do not regret that time.

What do you consider your main successes as an MLA?

First of all on the environmental side, we’ve made some progress on renewable energy. Now when we build a new facility, typically it’s heated with biomass. I got the legislative assembly on biomass, all our schools now are built with all sorts of things.

I’ve been less successful in getting effective regulation; we don’t have an energy efficiency act and we refuse to put in any kinds of standards. We’re very progressive as a government and very happy to reduce our own costs, but we’re not very good at reducing the public’s cost by demanding they do things that we’ve proven are effective.

Likewise with industry – we’ve made no requirements of it. Diavik is out there demonstrating [that alternative energy projects like wind power] are feasible. Still, people are against standards being brought in – like if you’re going to build a new mine, you must meet a standard for renewable energy: this year, five percent, in three years, 15 percent, three years after that, 25 percent. It’s a competitive advantage for them to do so. That’s the bizarre and frustrating thing.

Did you play a part in getting the solar energy strategy in place?

I didn’t play a big role in that, other than harping on about it. I think many of these sorts of things, the biomass strategy, the solar strategy, the energy efficiency incentives through the Arctic Energy Alliance, those sorts of things have been in response to the sorts of things I’ve pushed for.

On the topic of “harping” on about things – as a regular member how effective have you found public harping as opposed to things like committee work?

I found committees sometimes to be effective and sometimes to be ineffective. But the floor of the house is a very powerful environment. And harping publically, with common sense, is very powerful.

Is “harping” from regular members more effective in a consensus government situation because the government is always effectively in a minority situation?

It all depends on solidarity. If the eleven regular members can develop solidarity – that requires engagement, a willingness to go for the best for everyone, a global versus parochial approach – they can really drive the agenda,

I’d say we were able to do that in the 16th but not the 17th Assembly. In the 17th, there has been no solidarity. [Without solidarity,] accountability suffers, the cabinet does what they want, consensus government goes out the window and it’s sort of a dictatorship position with the premier – a pretty nice position to be in from that side of the fence!

What needs to be in place for consensus to work?

It will never be straightforward, and I don’t know if our so-called consensus government is any better or worse than a party system. But as I say, to be effective you need solidarity. It requires thinking people, people who have the good of everybody in mind and can get out of their little riding situations, that are not in it so much for the ego.

The big fly in the ointment, unmentioned here, is the outside-Yellowknife communities versus Yellowknife. These guys have to leave home and come to Yellowknife and live here, so they naturally socialize together, and have supper together and go to movies together and party together, whatever. It’s a pretty closed group, those MLAs, so it’s natural that their thinking can get a little bit distorted, it’s the world-against-them sort of thing, or them against Yellowknife.

Whereas Yellowknife members, we recognize that our ridings are just part of this entity, the city of Yellowknife, with almost 50 percent of the population. Yellowknife is well-off compared to many of the situations the communities face, so we have that global view much more easily. But when we propose things that are of benefit to communities – almost as much or to a greater degree than Yellowknife – the community members would vote against it.

Do you have examples of this?

Examples might be energy efficiency stuff. The studies have shown, you build an energy efficient house, even if it’s a bit more costly, when you bring in the monthly payments it’s a much cheaper approach. The evidence is there, but again people from the communities would say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want to build more expensive houses, that’s another cross to bear on our people’s back.’

Avens would be another example. Even though half or more of the clients are from other communities, [MLAs from the communities] won’t support it, even though it’s unaffordable to put a facility like that in each small community.

You mentioned there was more solidarity in the 16th assembly. What was different in the 17th?

One of the differences was we had one more Yellowknife MLA on the committees [in the 16th assembly], and something as little as that can change the balance of things. We had a Premier who was outside of Yellowknife, so fewer Yellowknifers on cabinet.

In this case, Yellowknifers would be right to be asking what Premier McLeod has done for Yellowknife

What, in your estimation, has Premier McLeod done for Yellowknife?

If you think devolution is going to help Yellowknife, well he’s done that. But devolution to my mind is far from complete. We’ve simply mirrored the federal system and we seem to be even more federal than the federal government in terms of administering it.

It’s really unheard of to adopt legislation without review by a standing committee who take it out to the public, explain it to them, answer questions about it, discuss and debate it, and put it through the system and make it Northern.

Could you remind us what legislation are you talking about in particular?

There’s the oil and gas act, the petroleum resources act, the Mackenzie Valley water act – that last one, I think Minister Miltenberger has done better on. But again, working pretty much exclusively with Aboriginal groups and not much with the public.

With the legislative requirements for consultation, Aboriginal governments and people are continually consulted. But because there is no legal requirement, even though there’s certainly a moral requirement, there’s very little public consultation with non-Aboriginal people. And there’s certainly almost no support in terms of dollars. We spend millions and millions of dollars assisting Aboriginal governments to review devolution, while never telling the public a single thing about what’s being discussed. So, a pretty unfortunate dichotomy there.

While you say there’s more work to be done, overall do you think devolution been good for the territory?

Certainly not yet. So far I would call it a failure. It’s very divisive. We left the Deh Cho and the Akaitcho out of the process. The Tlicho are in court over the Land and Water Board. Fracking is another good example where this government adopted federal policy rather than going to the public to ask what do you want here.

So far it’s not a success. But there’s potential, I think, if we eventually take things to the people.

Looking more broadly at McLeod’s premiership, would you call it a success?

Definitely not. What kind of economy do we need now? What is the world telling us? We keep signing onto these global agreements but we know what’s happening to our climate. Where’s our economic system that recognizes that?

McLeod says to the [Federal] government, ‘Give us more money and we want great economic growth without having costs with climate change.’ It’s totally unrealistic. What planet is this guy living on?

What could we be doing differently?

Basically, we cannot be developing oil and gas from the North. The science shows that’s part of the equation that’s driving us towards dangerous climate change. So where is our plan to get off fossil fuels to the maximum extent possible?

There’s a lot of technology out there; in many parts of the world, solar companies are outbidding fossil fuel approaches to contracts. We need to recognize the jobs that are involved in the transition to renewables, the environmental benefits, the social benefits and the long-term reduced costs. Taking that approach and largely deriving your food locally, deriving all your basic needs regionally – all this contributes to these local and regional economies, bringing the skills we’re looking for into our small communities, taking advantage of the existing skills.

A skeptic might say this is an unrealistic vision for a subarctic region that’s historically relied on extraction industries. How do you respond to that skeptic?

First of all, in our history you’re looking at this [makes a small sign with his fingers], when you talk about the extractive industry being the principal industry. You’re ignoring all the history of the Northwest Territories when people lived on the land and produced all the cultures and languages and traditions and so on.

In today’s world, living the way we do, we definitely need an extractive industry. What we don’t need is an extractive oil, gas, coal industry. We do need mining in the North, it’s always been a significant part of our economy, but it needs to be based on renewable energy, more and more. And done in a way that local benefits accrue.

What do you consider your biggest failures as an MLA?

I guess the first one would be the lack of solidarity in committees on my side of the house; despite fighting hard for small community concerns, not having that recognized by my colleagues.

Certainly the loss of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation from my riding, I regard as a failure. They wanted [to stay] and I wanted it as the representative. The riding they’re going to and their representative don’t want it, and yet with the democratic process it is going to happen that way.

Corporations in the classroom is another issue; again I don’t think my colleagues are open to reading the literature. That’s the iPads for kids, though there have been some other things here and there. Imperial Oil bought $3000 worth of books with the Imperial stamp on every book, and these are for kids in early grades! Pepsi-Cola has signs on the basketball court. I don’t have problem with companies taking a part in community sports and so on, but it’s the childhood stuff.

If you’re concerned about social stuff, the biggest thing you can do is early childhood. This government knows that this is needed, but they’ve chosen to put their nickel into Junior Kindergarten. But that’s too late. Any of the scientists and experts in early childhood say it’s the first three years and the pregnancy before birth that’s the critical time, and we are not doing that. So we have these kids coming into these Junior Kindergarten programs without the brain development that’s needed to speak languages, to take advantage of these amazing teachers out there.

Looking forward at the election, what do you think people should be asking prospective candidates about?

We all want healthy families and healthy communities, [so ask your candidate,] ‘What do you think is going to achieve that? What will you do to provide me options with my household, to reduce my costs for basic needs: heat, power, food, clothing, shelter, transportation?’

People are aware that the global environment is influencing them more and more, so, ‘What are you going to do to look after these big issues that are affecting us?’

With Wendy Bisaro and yourself leaving politics, are you worried the legislative assembly will be left without a progressive wing?   

It’s of concern. But I think the system will provide progressives. I think our population is fairly progressive, much more so than our current cabinet. So I think there’s good potential for progressive candidates to make it through into the legislature.

Are you endorsing anyone to fill your old seat?

No. I think it should be a fair playing field out there.