How YK’s appeal for more seats was shafted – again

by Jack Danylchuk

EDGE YK Online

On EDGE: Opinion

November 11, 2013

Hansard doesn’t record gestures or expressions, but it’s hard to imagine that a wink, a blink or a nudge didn’t pass between Bob McLeod and Michael Miltenberger after the premier’s brief contribution to the debate on electoral boundaries.

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“We shouldn’t be increasing seats because the population is moving around,” said McLeod, who chose to give more weight to the Territory’s marginal population loss than the growth that devolution and resource extraction promise, opting instead for a realignment of constituency boundaries.

If anyone worried that Yellowknife’s interests would be sacrificed, McLeod reminded fellow legislators that “we are a consensus government. We don’t have political parties, so we don’t have to worry about gerrymandering when it comes to setting electoral boundaries.”

Nothing could be further from the truth that comes from long experience. Electoral boundaries have been fiddled to reflect language, culture and geography, to pander to fears that Yellowknife might dominate the legislature, and once by a court order that granted the capital its proper entitlement of seats. But that was a long ago; fundamental changes are overdue.

MLAs stick with status quo

Wendy Bisaro and Robert Hawkins did the math for the current legislature. Yellowknife has 48 per cent of the Territory’s population, but just 36 percent of the seats, and a 21-seat legislature – with nine in the capital – would come closest to fair representation, Hawkins said before MLAs rejected the proposal to add two seats and stick with the status quo.

Bisaro challenged the view “that Yellowknife will always get the numbers. I look at this side of the House, there are 11 Members, of which four are from Yellowknife. I look across at the other side of the House: there are seven Members, of which three are from Yellowknife. Where’s the majority in that?”

The 19-seat option would have been rejected if four Yellowknife MLAs – David Ramsay, Bob McLeod, Glen Abernethy and Robert Hawkins – had not voted with Kevin Menicoche, Frederick Blake, Michael Miltenberger, Robert C. McLeod, Gilbert Bouchard, and Alfred Moses.

Voting against the 19-seat scenario were Daryl Dolynny, Tom Beaulieu, Michael Nadli, Wendy Bisaro, Bob Bromley, Jackson Lafferty, whose Monfwi constituency would have been split in two in the 21-seat scenario, and Norman Yakeleya, who wants another MLA from the Sahtu.

“This is the worst of the three scenarios,” said Bob Bromley, whose Weledeh constituency will lose the Yellowknives Dene communities of N’dilo and Dettah to a slightly expanded Tu Nedeh constituency.

The proof of Bisaro’s observation was in the vote. Offered a choice of cutting the number of constituencies to 18, keeping the legislature at 19 seats, or adding two, MLAs voted 10-7 to redraw boundaries of several constituencies without any challenge to the status quo.

Premier McLeod was thumbing his nose at the city’s wish for more seats – and more responsive representation from Yellowknife South, which served as a base for his political career – and the discontent with consensus governance that surfaced again during the last territorial election.

Dreamed up at the end of the nineteenth century by Frederick Haultain, an eccentric expat Brit, consensus governance was foisted on the Territories when Ottawa decided to pass the reins from an appointed council to an elected government.

Evolution of consensus government

As consensus has evolved in the Territories, cabinet and premier are selected in secret by MLAs claiming a proxy from voters, who are otherwise excluded from the business of government, and gives more weight to geography, languages and culture than it does to knowledge and ability.

Consensus governance has no greater champions than MLAs, blatantly favouring incumbents who already have the potential advantage of name recognition, by offering such perks as forwarding calls and emails from their legislature offices to their campaign headquarters.

Shortcomings are sometimes acknowledged by legislators who then disparage Ottawa for debate sometimes driven by politics – as if that was somehow unclean – and argue the Territory has too few people to support a genuine parliamentary democracy. We’re different, they say, and play the trump: it’s what the people want.

In the last election campaign, in addition to the usual mutterings of discontent about consensus governance, there was a suggestion that the premier be elected directly by voters – not in a secret backroom trading session.

Miltenberger suggested that those issues could be explored by the Electoral Boundaries Commission. Those questions were outside its mandate, but that didn’t stop the commissioners from making some trenchant observations. In sparsely attended hearings, they learned that there is scant knowledge among voters about governance of the Territories.

Confusion about assembly’s role

“At many hearings, it was apparent that there was confusion about the role and authority of the various levels of government,” the commissioners wrote. “Individuals expressed confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the Legislative Assembly and its Members, their land claim and/or self-government agreements, devolution, their community, regional and territorial governments. Inserted into this confusion were the Commission’s hearings about electoral boundaries. There were many questions about the Commission, its mandate and its role vis-à-vis various levels of government.

“It seems clear that, particularly in the smaller communities, public education is needed about the roles of the various levels of government and the role of the Legislative Assembly and its Members. If the public is going to meaningfully participate in the electoral boundaries process and public consultations or hearings in other areas for which the Legislative Assembly is responsible, they need to have a better understanding of the institution.”

If voters are confused about consensus governance, they can hardly be counted among its supporters, and that can’t be passed off with a wink, a blink or a nudge. After doing his turn as premier, Bob McLeod’s career in territorial politics is over, but the debate about electoral boundaries and consensus governance is not. It’s time to find out what voters really want, not what self-serving political hacks say is best for them.

Jack Danylchuk is a Senior Contributing Editor with EDGE YK magazine and one of the publication’s founders.

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