NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane’s staff now say she was not “formally denied” permission to join MLAs by video link after contracting Covid-19 this week.
Cochrane missed Thursday’s proceedings in the legislature, saying she had tested positive for the disease and was following the territory’s ongoing advice to remain at home and limit contact with other people in those circumstances.
Asked why she could not join the sitting by video link, a senior cabinet communications advisor initially wrote that the premier had asked to do so but “her request was denied.”
Later on Thursday evening, the same office said in an unsigned email that “the information provided to Cabin Radio earlier today about the premier’s virtual participation in session was not entirely correct.”
That statement added: “While an informal conversation took place between the premier’s office and the clerk’s office about the rules and the circumstances under which the premier could participate virtually, a formal request was not made to the speaker’s office, and no formal denial was issued.”
Following a second request for comment on Friday, the Legislative Assembly provided a written response from Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr, who stated that an MLA appearing by video is “a rare exception, not a regular practice” and the legislature’s chamber does not allow video appearances at short notice.
Blake stated that accommodating video meant having to do away with one interpreter’s booth for the day, “reducing the number of languages made available.”
“As a result, some notice is required for the affected interpreters and to change over the systems to allow for remote participation,” Blake stated.
“Ministers (including the premier) are often absent for a day or two of a sitting and this is addressed by having another member or, in this case, the deputy premier answer questions on their behalf.”
Pandemic introduced video
During the height of the pandemic, the NWT legislature amended its rules to allow MLAs to join by video link in specific sets of circumstances.
Under the assembly’s relatively new rules on virtual participation, MLAs can ask to join a sitting via video link if there is a state of emergency where they are located, if an order of the chief public health officer prevents their travel, or at “any other time where the speaker is satisfied that the member’s safety, or health, or the safety and health of their spouse, dependent or other members would be at risk if they were required to travel to participate.”
The rules add: “When making a decision, the speaker shall consider the circumstances of the member, and whether or not the member is unable to participate because of their own actions, or the actions of others.”
In the legislature, which reconvened on Thursday for a brief week-long sitting, deputy premier Diane Archie said Cochrane would miss two of the sitting’s seven days – Thursday and Friday – as a result.
“I recognize that my self-isolation comes at a time of great uncertainty in the territory due to forest fires and flooding,” Cochrane said in a written statement that did not address the rejection of her request.
“I want to reassure residents that cabinet meets daily on these matters, and I will continue to chair these meetings virtually,” Cochrane wrote.
“Deputy premier Diane Archie will remain in the House during my absence, and I am hopeful that I will be able to attend session next week.”