When the NDP showed an early surge in the polls this fall, many believed the 2015 federal election could be Dennis Bevington’s breakthrough after spending three terms trapped in opposition to an increasingly unresponsive Conservative government. Few observers, including several at this publication, thought he was in any danger of actually losing his seat. But on Oct. 19, the NDP suffered a massive defeat. Part of the collateral damage of the crushing red tide, Bevington lost his seat to Liberal challenger Michael McLeod.
Though still somewhat disappointed by his defeat, Bevington, 62, said he welcomes the opportunity to come “full circle” and focus on his priorities outside of government. He sat down with EDGE to reflect on his challenges and successes, give some advice to the territory’s new MP and share what’s next for him after almost 10 years in federal politics.
Now that you’ve had a bit of time to process the results of last week’s election and what some believe was a surprising outcome, what do you think happened with the NWT vote?
I think it was a combination of two factors: one was a very good campaign by Mr. McLeod and his team; and the other was the red tide. I haven’t seen all the results of all the polls yet. I’ve seen the totals, of course, but not the community breakdowns. To fully understand that, I think I’d have to look at those numbers as well, but it was definitely a red tide at the end. You could see that going door to door, where many people would say they were undecided.
In a way, I think we got 85 percent of the vote that we got in the previous election, so our vote didn’t drop that much; but the number of voters that came on was considerable, and that may have fooled people a little bit, because our voters were still there, but they were overwhelmed by the new voters and by the losses that both ourselves and the Conservatives saw. I lost around 1,100 votes but the Conservatives lost I think close to 2,000.
So you think the voter turnout was part of it?
Yeah, the voter turnout was very positive for the Liberals. In the end result, you realize there was not much you could do about any additional work or anything else.
I lost one time by 50 votes, and losing by over 3,000 is actually less of a strain on the system. (Laughter)
There’s been a lot of criticism from all sides on Mulcair’s leadership and the direction of the party. What are your thoughts on that?
I think we were kind of damned if we do, damned if we don’t about the budget deficits. So we chose to present a balanced budget, and when the choice was between us or the Conservatives, that probably made a lot of sense to people. But as the campaign went on, people were looking for more than that. That’s kind of indicative of the move right around the world, where anti-austerity parties are doing very well.
Do you have any thoughts on whether or not Mulcair should resign as leader?
Not right now, no. I think he’ll have some time to reflect on that over the next year or two, to make a decision on that.
Reflecting back on your almost 10 years as MP, what did you learn that stands out to you about the NWT while representing it at the federal level?
Well, I always call the Northwest Territories the world’s largest small town. That characteristic is so interesting. When the Conservatives kept talking in the last parliament about how they wanted to make all the environmental legislation uniform across the three territories, that really went against what I know about this territory. It’s so different than the Yukon and Nunavut.
Nunavut is basically an ethnic homeland of the Inuit people; the Yukon was colonized through mining activity and largely the population is mostly non-Aboriginal—80 per cent non-Aboriginal. So this territory is really the one place in Canada where there’s this balance between First Nations’ governments and public government. That’s a very special, unique thing. We’ve done a lot of work to ensure that that is the reality. I go back to the Constitutional discussions that we had in the ’90s, where we looked at what our future would be, and it has always been a future of shared jurisdiction and responsibility, of cooperation and collaboration, which I think is such a fundamentally exciting and interesting proposition for this territory. In my time as Member of Parliament, I saw the need for that over and over again.
What do you count as your greatest successes over your three terms?
That’s a really tough question because, of course, I was in opposition to three Conservative governments. I think I had a good impact on the fiscal capacity of the Government of the Northwest Territories through a private member’s bill that I did. I did a lot of work on environmental issues, standing up for environmental concerns, which — how can you judge the results of that? I think the results are judged by the fact that even though the Conservatives passed a number of bills that hurt the environment, we built the case that this shouldn’t be. I think we’ll see changes to those bills now. So maybe some of the work that I’ve done will show up more in the future. Parliament is a process of ideas, and you have to try to work within that.
The other thing I think I was pretty successful at was my work with the Council of the Arctic Parliamentarians, where I eventually was elected vice chair of that organization and where I’ve done a lot of work on Arctic issues to encourage international multilateral cooperation.
I guess the other one was the cost of living, where in the 2007 budget, after proddings from me, the Conservatives did increase the Northern Residents tax deduction by 10 per cent. But it went on from there to Nutrition North and renewable energy and to all the things that really need to be done in the North to bring down our cost of living. So I’ve been a promoter of those during my time in parliament and we’ll see what the new government does with those now.
Based on that work at the international level and the local level, where do you think the greatest potential for change lies in the North on those issues, such as energy and cost of living?
An example: we did a question on the order paper which divided all the renewable energy spent by the government of Canada over the last nine years, and I worked out an average of $7 per capita, per year. Well, the US federal government in that time spent more like $140 per capita, per year. The government of Germany spent $250 per capita.
Obviously these guys failed to invest by world standards in this burgeoning area. So in the North, where renewable energy is very competitive with fuel oil, to a large extent the big investments weren’t made, and they weren’t big investments of big projects, in retrofitting, in solar, in wind power or in biomass. Those are things we could have spent a lot of money in a lot of different places to promote. It was cost-effective to do it, as well. I look around Fort Smith here and I see a lot of federal buildings still not converted to biomass; even Parks Canada hasn’t put a lot of money into renewable energy. I find that to be pretty backward by world standards.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for our new MP moving forward?
I think you have to be careful with what you invest in. You know, you can talk about roads and big structural investments, but they have to be dealt with very carefully. We see what happened, for instance, with the Inuvik-Tuk Highway, which was a federal government decision off the cuff in 2011. It’s sort of a make-work project, and that $300 million might have been better invested in more sustainability for Tuktoyaktuk and the Inuvik area rather than the short-term result of putting a road across the tundra. So the Liberals are promising to spend all this money on infrastructure. In the short-term, are they going to pick projects that don’t really help sustainability? Are they going to be doing things like the Conservative infrastructure program in 2008, where it really didn’t advance our economy in a different direction?
So that’s sort of your advice, then: be careful what you invest in?
Yeah, look at the real problems and look at the local solutions.
So what’s next for you? Are you going to circle back to focus on your business, or is there any chance of you running in the territorial election?
No, not for this upcoming election, but I’m not ruling out something in the future. Right now I think I’m going to focus on my family, which I’ve been just an occasional participant in over the last 10 years, and my businesses. I have a number of businesses that I think could be stimulated in ways that will forward the kinds of things I think are important. I have a business called Stand Alone Energy and we’ve done lots of work on that business for 20 years. I kind of took a 10-year hiatus from it, but we’ve kept a knowledge base about northern energy systems that I think will work pretty well.
It was pretty interesting that even though you weren’t elected on Monday, your daughter Anna was elected to town council in Fort Smith, which is where you started out with your political career. What do you make of that?
Politics can be a challenging profession, and of course I wish my daughter all the success with that. I really, truly think that town council is a great place to start off in your political career. It’s real things for real people. It helps you understand that the decisions you make are always about — and should be about — real things and real people.
So it kind of brings you back to the basics.
Yeah, never forget about the basics. The basics are the environment, the living conditions, the sustainability of your economy. We’re now going to go into a period of decline up here in the diamond industry, and we need to replace that. I see some of the best replacement opportunities are in import replacement, especially in our smaller communities. I’m excited about many of the things that are being made that show a lot of leadership. There’s things happening. During the election campaign, in all the communities I visited I looked for examples of things that people are doing to create local economy, whether it’s arts and crafts, tourism, food production, or forestry use. You can find examples of people creating success in all these areas, so that’s kind of exciting.
For me, it’s kind of full circle. I came back up here after university and meeting my partner to kind of be a ‘back to the land-er’ in the mid-’70s. We’ve always done gardens and a lot of home production, heated our homes with wood, did all the things that were healthy and useful. They’ve helped my overall prosperity over the years. We kind of created too much of a consumer society in the North that we can’t afford, and we need to find ways to change that. Those are the things that I’ll be involved with in the future.