Politics
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Musical Chairs in YK North and Frame Lake

This coming Territorial election features lots of candidates running for two empty seats, and few incumbents being challenged. That's lousy for our democracy.
It’s almost like there’s no repercussions in territorial politics; you have to really, really screw up to get tossed.

Sometimes territorial politics is like a children’s game – MLAs trying to get goodies for their ridings: Hungry Hungry Hippos; plans to cut emissions while also developing the oil and gas sector: Jenga. And not to mention the general bickering, sibling rivalry, and an occasional run to mommy and daddy Ottawa. You get the point.

Looking at how the territorial election is shaping up in Yellowknife so far, the most telling playtime metaphor is Musical Chairs: someone hit pause on ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and a veritable horde of would-be candidates race for a few empty seats.

Just look at Yellowknife North (formerly Weledeh), held by Bob Bromley for the last two terms. Although only two candidates have confirmed they’re running in the riding – city councillors Dan Wong and Cory Vanthuyne – we’ve heard well-sourced buzz that at least another six people are gearing up to start running around in circles. Then there’s Wendy Bisaro’s Frame Lake riding, where four contenders are supposedly knotting their laces and getting ready to run.

You can hardly blame first-time candidates for flocking to these two free ridings. In the consensus system, incumbents have a huge advantage. It’s all about personal brand and name recognition, something sitting MLAs have spent the last four or more years building up. And having no political parties means incumbents don’t get booted for belonging to a party that’s fallen out of favour. It’s almost like there’s no repercussions in territorial politics; you have to really, really screw up to get tossed.

With this in mind, a chance to grab an empty seat even while scrapping with a bunch of other first-timers must be pretty tempting. However, this kind of pile-up is not a good thing for our territory’s democracy.

Undefeated, unchallenged, unquestioned

Right now Premier Bob McLeod is running in Yellowknife South unopposed – though there are rumours that Ben Nind, MP Dennis Bevington’s constituency assistant, is planning a YK South run just to make the premier work for reelection (Nind told EDGE yesterday that he still hasn’t decided either way). Then you have Health Minister Glen Abernethy running unopposed (so far) in the Great Slave riding.

In the three other Yellowknife ridings, the incumbents seem to be facing one challenger each: Julie Green announced she’d be taking on Robert Hawkins in Yellowknife Centre; Daryl Dolynny (Range Lake) and Justice Minister David Ramsay (Kam Lake) likewise seem to be facing single challengers, though these contenders have not publicly confirmed they’re running yet.

The thought of the premier and the health minister, whatever you think of them, running with little to no opposition is unsettling; as is the fact that the three other incumbents, who should be getting grilled on their records and held to account for their failures, are facing relatively little opposition compared to the free ridings. Perhaps the game of musical chairs acts as a kind of distraction: Hey look over there at all that exciting running around! Poof! McLeod’s premier again!

The very fact McLeod announced he wants to be premier again suggests he’s likely got the backroom wheeling and dealing needed to secure a second term already on lockdown; would he really be so forward about his intention unless he was confident about the odds? That means, in all likelihood many of the cabinet seats have also been dished out among the incumbents, so a fair few of the sitting MLAs, running with scant opposition, are likely to become ministers in the new government. In this scenario we’re basically throwing up our hands and saying: ‘four more years!’

Again, you can hardly fault political newcomers for aiming at ridings where they have the best odds of winning. But for the sake of our democracy – if we want to have a fulsome debate over the direction the 17th Assembly has taken the NWT – here’s hoping at least a few of the folks salivating over Frame Lake and Yellowknife North try their hands at other ridings. Or even better, let’s hope some more people jump into these less contested races. Children’s games, after all, aren’t fun unless everyone is pushing and shoving.