Northwest Territories residents should be able to create and vote for political parties at territorial level, one MLA is proposing.

Kieron Testart, the MLA for Kam Lake, said his proposed legislative amendments would “give northerners more choice at the ballot box … and enhance the democratic rights of our citizens.”

Testart, formerly president of the territory’s Liberal association, is known for his longstanding interest in party politics.

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The 33-year-old sought to represent the Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election before dropping out to support Michael McLeod, who eventually won the Northwest Territories seat for the party.

Amendments introduced by Testart on Thursday would change the rules to allow registration of territorial political parties, with party-aligned candidates’ affiliation shown on ballots during elections.

Currently, political hopefuls in each territorial election all run under their own name and serve as independent members of a consensus government, devoid of political allegiance.

Consensus can co-exist?

Consensus government is used by the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Nunatsiavut in Canada. Once elected, members choose a speaker, premier, and cabinet members from among their own number.

“This is democracy and all options should be considered,” Testart told Cabin Radio, adding he believes party politics and the consensus model can co-exist.

“I think there is space within our current system for both those who want to continue the consensus model and those who want to pursue party politics.”

According to Testart, a party political model would make it easier for residents to change entire governments if dissatisfied and “turf ministers” if desired.

Testart’s proposed measures would see political parties capable of registering with Elections NWT once they pass 60 members representing at least three electoral districts, with a constitution approved by a majority of those members.

Parties so registered would be limited to a cap of $30,000 per year spent promoting their candidates, outside an election period. Existing rules would apply during election periods, he said.

Testart’s amendments would see any candidates not affiliated to a registered party clearly labelled as “Independent” on ballots.

A news release issued on Testart’s behalf said “the ability to formally organize political parties is a well-entrenched right of Canadian citizens.” The statement added the NWT has, in Testart’s view, ill-defined laws and prohibitions regarding territorial political parties.

‘Never believed in party politics’

The proposal is likely to attract significant opposition within a territory that largely invented the concept of Canadian consensus government. There is little precedent for party politics in the Northwest Territories.

Five candidates in 1999’s territorial election ran under a Western Arctic NDP banner, though were not labelled as such on ballots. None of those five were elected.

In 2003, one candidate ran unsuccessfully on a similar NDP-based platform. In 2007, Bryan Sutherland created – and was the only candidate representing – the NWT Party. He finished last in the Yellowknife Centre riding, with 29 votes.

“I always believed that consensus government was the true form of politics for the Government of the Northwest Territories and the people,” said Wally Schumann, one of seven cabinet members, in October 2017.

“I’ve never believed in the party politics system … because I believe it needs to represent all of us,” he continued.

“I think we have a shared responsibility … to represent the people of the Northwest Territories and not hide under any particular colour or brand or party.”

Also in 2017, Premier Bob McLeod said: “The consensus system and process has served this territory well for almost 50 years now. It is worth preserving and strengthening.

“It is a system that lets multiple voices and multiple interests come together to make decisions that are stronger because all sides are considered, while the rigid decisions associated with party politics tend to be avoided.

“We have a diverse territory where one size does not fit all [and] need to make sure we support that diversity in our discussions here.”

Upon her election in 2016, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said she had heard from constituents “an appetite for a public conversation about consensus government not aimed at the introduction of party politics, but aimed at investigating and potentially strengthening our current system.”

Cultural shift

Even Testart himself, in October 2017, said his grievances with present cabinet members had to do with “good governance” rather than the consensus system itself.

A year later, he told Cabin Radio his views had changed as he had “taken more time to listen to the frustrations of people … and my own colleagues.”

He continued: “So much of what consensus does is in secret. In a system guided by political parties, you would be bringing issues to the public in order to gain support because everything is settled by election. That’s something we don’t have here.”

Asked how much consultation he had conducted with Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Territories regarding their support for party politics, Testart provided Greenland as an example of what he called a “majority-Indigenous” environment in which political parties were working well.

“There is support,” he said. “There are some chiefs who support the idea of a political party. Usually, it takes the idea of a Dehcho Party or an Indigenous Peoples’ Party, but that’s completely appropriate for this exercise. We are talking about giving voters more choice at the ballot box.”

Debate on the amendments is scheduled for Monday, October 29. Testart admitted his colleagues in the legislature “consider this a big cultural shift,” though he felt he does have some support.

Testart said if the amendments pass, he would not necessarily run under a Liberal Party banner in the 2019 territorial election.

“If I think consensus can get the job done, I’ll gladly return as consensus,” he claimed. “To make a political party work, you need supporters, money, volunteers, and candidates.

“Being a party of one isn’t very effective. If this passes and there is support out there, I’ll gladly consider that option.

“We do the same thing again and again, and the status quo just isn’t working.”