Abandon selection of ministers based on geography, MLA says
A Yellowknife MLA has called for future territorial governments to abandon the principle of selecting cabinet members based on equal representation of regions.
At the moment, convention in the Northwest Territories dictates that two of the six cabinet members (other than the premier) come from the territory’s north, two from the south and two from Yellowknife.
In the current cabinet, Diane Archie and Paulie Chinna are the northern members as they represent the Inuvik Boot Lake and Sahtu districts respectively.
Nahendeh’s Shane Thompson and Hay River North’s RJ Simpson are the southern cabinet members. Caroline Wawzonek and Julie Green represent Yellowknife.
“Get rid of the 2/2/2 convention,” Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson tweeted on Wednesday evening.
“Stop prioritizing geography over who is best suited for the job.”
In the past, Johnson has said the geography-led approach to cabinet selection is “questioned” by a lot of MLAs but rarely formally challenged.
When Yellowknife MLA Katrina Nokleby was removed from cabinet in 2020, Steve Norn – then the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh – attempted to stand as a candidate to replace her, but was barred from doing so as he was not considered a Yellowknife MLA. Norn represented the communities of Dettah, Ndilǫ, Fort Resolution and Łútsël K’é.
Norn said at the time he was being “stifled by the system.”
Initially, an electoral boundaries commission had been set to widen its usual remit and consider changes to cabinet composition – and how the territory’s premier is chosen – alongside its normal mandate to evaluate how fairly the NWT’s electoral districts are divided. However, the commission ultimately reported only on district-related matters and made no report or recommendations on how cabinet is chosen.
Make votes public?
MLAs, not voters, decide the premier and cabinet members after each territorial election is over. Whoever is selected by their colleagues to be premier then decides which cabinet member gets which portfolio.
The votes for premier and cabinet are secret, another tradition Johnson believes should end.
“Our assembly was initially quite divided on MLAs who voted for Jackson Lafferty and those who voted for Caroline Cochrane,” he tweeted.
“This divide caused a lot of drama. Public votes would have let everyone know what was going on.”
Johnson himself did publicize his votes ahead of time. He said he would select RJ Simpson as premier.
Among other recommendations Johnson made on Wednesday was the appointment of a press secretary who can act as a spokesperson for cabinet. At the moment, a team of communications staff arranges interviews on behalf of ministers but does not normally speak for them, which Johnson said was a problem when several ministers – and regular MLAs – “outright refuse to talk to media or are just real bad at it.”
He also encouraged more transparency in government, more use of omnibus bills to address multiple areas of ageing legislation in one go, and free votes rather than cabinet solidarity on most issues other than each year’s budget and items directly related to the territorial government’s mandate.
Wendy Bisaro, who served as the Frame Lake MLA from 2007 to 2015, told Johnson via Twitter that the discussion he was attempting to spark was “very much needed.”
Bisaro said similar suggestions had in the past been too readily dismissed as “not necessary.”