Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart’s proposal to introduce party politics in the Northwest Territories suffered a resounding defeat in the legislature on Monday.
Testart’s amendments were debated by MLAs on Monday evening, capping a tumultuous day in which two ministers learned they will face no-confidence votes.
Only Testart rose in favour as the main debate among members ended; 14 members opposed the first of his amendments, and one – Justice Minister Lou Sebert – abstained. His remaining amendments were similarly defeated.
Testart wanted the NWT to adopt party politics for next year’s territorial election. Up till now, though occasional attempts to run on party political platforms have occurred in the past, there has been no official presence of parties in elections held at territorial level.
On Monday, members raised concerns about the lack of any public consultation related to Testart’s measures – which would profoundly change the territory’s political landscape if approved.
Testart, who insists his proposals do not scrap consensus government but simply introduce party politics as an option candidates may pursue, admitted: “Members have raised concerns about consultation and I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a big issue.”
He went on: “This is an attempt to draw public debate to a very specific proposal that was not proposing to transform this chamber, today, into a political party system tomorrow, but rather to allow opportunities for those seeking this option to pursue it and have voters decide at a general election.”
In addressing the issue of consultation, he compared the introduction of party politics to a separate amendment moving polling day from a Monday to a Tuesday – questioning why members felt the introduction of a new political system should merit consultation if a change of polling day did not.
“Members should be concerned at the lack of consultation on all amendments in this bill,” Testart claimed. “If we take issue with these amendments, we need to take issue with all the amendments.
“I’m dismayed that [some concerns] are driven by a fear that incumbents would be at a disadvantage.
“The point is not to condemn consensus to the dustbin of history. It is to allow our citizens to exercise their constitutional rights in a clear and consistent manner.”
Cabinet ‘like a party’
Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu, speaking last before the vote, said he would oppose Testart’s vision but warned MLAs to take it as evidence of problems with consensus government.
“Consensus government doesn’t work if cabinet doesn’t wish it to work,” said Beaulieu, alluding to a series of recent accusations by regular MLAs that cabinet is not communicating nor collaborating in the manner consensus government’s creators intended.
“People wouldn’t give party politics a second thought if we thought it was working the way it should work,” he continued, adding: “Cabinet … is like a party, at this point.”
Glen Abernethy said Testart had missed several opportunities to ensure his proposals did receive some form of consultation.
“A committee did a significant amount of work going out and getting feedback [on other amendments to the same legislation],” said Abernethy, “and at no time – at no time – did I hear anybody come in and say we need to incorporate parties in this process. Nobody brought it up.
“What the member has missed is to have the discussion with the public. If we’re going to do it, I believe the people of the Northwest Territories have to tell us to do it.
“This is not giving the public the due course and opportunity to have input into something. To me, it’s more like an end-run.”
Abernethy concluded: “We have to stop the partisanship on both sides of this House. We need to do better.”
Kevin O’Reilly, agreeing, said the proposals were “being piggybacked” onto other work without due process.
“It really does deserve a full, public discussion and debate,” he said. “It’s going to be divisive. We know that.”
In abstaining on the opening vote, Sebert said he was “not necessarily opposed to the idea of parties in the Northwest Territories, but I don’t think this is the way that we should get there.”
Caroline Cochrane expressed concern that some of the measures included among Testart’s amendments would make it harder for poorer candidates to gain election.
Testart, a keen follower of party politics at federal level, briefly attempted to run as the Liberal candidate in the 2015 federation election and is a past president of the NWT’s Liberal association.
Ministers Abernethy and Wally Schumann each face motions on Wednesday during which MLAs will debate removing them from cabinet, following alleged failings regarding child protection and barge services respectively.
Schumann, in particular, is said to have raised the ire of some regular MLAs for the manner in which he has communicated with them.
One senior government official told Cabin Radio they expect Wednesday’s votes to be far closer than Monday’s motion on party politics, with members believed to be split – nine in favour, nine opposed – on the motions to remove Abernethy and Schumann.
Bill 24, which amends the Elections and Plebiscites Act, now moves to third reading.