Kevin O’Reilly hopes to remain the MLA for Yellowknife’s Frame Lake.
O’Reilly’s re-election campaign pledges a drive for “real action” on climate change, better tourism supports in Yellowknife, and a focus on the NWT’s knowledge economy.
O’Reilly told Cabin Radio he’s proved his worth by holding cabinet accountable. He argues there needs to be pushback on major infrastructure projects if, in his view, the business case has not been made.
Instead, he believes transformative change for the NWT should come from the education sector. He points to a university in Iceland as an example for the territory to follow as it plans a new polytechnic.
O’Reilly also hopes to introduce a Climate Crisis Act, designed to ensure “the investments we make … consider climate-change implications.”
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. O’Reilly’s interview airdate is September 12.
More information: Kevin O’Reilly’s campaign Facebook page
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 6, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Give us a sense of your priorities for the next four years.
Kevin O’Reilly: Sure. I think one of the biggest issues, of course, is going to be the economy. And I do think that we need to look at different ways to diversify our economy.
I think some of the things that will help with that are this NWT polytechnic university. We need a real campus here in Yellowknife. That’s not to take away from what Fort Smith or Inuvik have, and we also have to incorporate the community learning centres as well, but I think that will help attract a lot of investment, research and development into Yellowknife and the other communities as well.
And you know, there’s a lot of worldwide interest in what we do well here: things like traditional knowledge, Indigenous language revitalization, cold-weather technology, environmental remediation, lots of great things. And a lot of that work is happening, but we just need a way to better focus it and make sure it meets our priorities, that it provides jobs and opportunities for our people here in the Northwest Territories. And I think Yellowknife is going to have to be a big part of that.
You know, I think there are opportunities here with tourism, obviously. We see that in Yellowknife. Unfortunately, we don’t have a real visitors’ centre right now. That’s something that needs to be fixed and it has to be done in collaboration with the city, of course, but we need some capital money to assist with that.
Lastly, we need a much bigger investment in housing. Many of our residents don’t have adequate, affordable or suitable housing right now but if we can invest in that area, we will create jobs in all the communities in the Northwest Territories, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lower the cost of living. So I think those are some of the most important ways that we can help diversify our economy.
You’ve spent four years as an MLA. What would you say was your biggest success in that time?
If you look at the Frame Lake riding itself, we have a new Stanton Hospital. It’s the largest capital project ever for the Northwest Territories. There was also a $13-million expansion on the Ecole Allain St-Cyr school last year school, it’s in the Frame Lake riding again. We had lots of capital investment going on within the riding and I’m happy to take some credit for that.
Other things that happened, that I think are of broader interest for the people of the Northwest Territories: we’re going to have 911 service, we have a territorial ombud now, we have the best access to information protection and privacy legislation probably in Canada. Those were some of the key accomplishments that we achieved together as MLAs.
Some of the things that I pushed for as well: I was the only person to have a private member’s bill, on cremation services. It just gives people more options at the end of their life. I also pushed for a review of victim services and the Minister of Justice agreed to do that.
I was very effective in keeping cabinet accountable, I made lots of suggestions and many of those were adopted to improve the big glut of legislation that we had towards the end. So you know, I work very, very hard. I represent our constituents here in Frame Lake well, and that’s what I expect to do in the next assembly.
I was having a look through your campaign brochure earlier. “Helped avoid strike” is written down as a key achievement. Talk me through your role in that.
There were an ongoing negotiations, obviously, between our employees and the government. I think I was one of the first, if not the only MLA that actually raised the issue on the floor of the house, while the negotiations were going on, to suggest that our government had to adopt a more flexible approach than the zero percent, zero percent, and small increases after that, in terms of the negotiations.
I raised the issue of going to binding arbitration. I strongly supported the motion that came to the floor of the house on this matter. I stayed in touch with the UNW executive during the course of the negotiations. I also asked for regular briefings from the Minister of Finance so I could hear from both sides.
So I did take an active role in trying to make sure that we avoided a strike. I don’t think it would have been in the best interest of anyone, including our employees. And I’m happy to see that there was a negotiated agreement at the end of the day.
Why do you think we came so close to a strike? Who do you think was at fault there?
Well, you know, look, it takes two parties to dance. But I think the position of cabinet was largely being driven by the fiscal strategy that they set out at the very beginning of this assembly, to make cuts to programs and services to fund infrastructure.
We had at least two if not three successive budgets in the house where cuts were being made and that’s really what was driving most of the business that was actually happening in the assembly for the first two to three years.
So, you know, the position on the negotiations was largely driven by that. And I think there probably could have been more progress made if there was a bit more flexibility on that front, right from the beginning,
Talking about “cutting programs, services, and jobs to fund large infrastructure projects,” that’s a line from your campaign brochure as well. Those infrastructure projects are designed, in the longer term, to bring in money to fund more programs, services and jobs, aren’t they?
That’s what the stated rationale has been. Where’s the analysis behind that? Where is the business case? Where are the hard numbers behind that? We also have some large infrastructure projects before us in terms of Taltson or the Slave Geological Province road. Where are the business cases for this work?
For Taltson, where are the buyers? We don’t have any buyers for for power to expand Taltson. So that’s all I ask, Where is the rationale? Where’s the research, the analysis that proves that these are the best use of our money? You know, if we spent that money in other ways, what would be the jobs generated and so on?
If you look at the economic multipliers the GNWT itself uses, you’ll see that we actually can create more jobs in any sector, other than mining or oil and gas almost, with the same amount of money. So that’s what I question is, you know, are we getting the best value for our money by investing into those large infrastructure projects?
The other thing I would say, too, is that we’re getting very close to our debt wall. It’s $1.3 billion. That’s the debt wall. We’re now at $1.1 billion. This assembly significantly increased that. And, look, I’m for big infrastructure, not necessarily a problem. But when we start to eat into the future and our debt management, then I think we need to look at whether it’s the best use for the money as well.
Cabinet advances these infrastructure projects, and we think of the Taltson hydro expansion, we think of the Slave Geological Province access road, because they feel, or they say, that they will have a transformative impact on the NWT. So if there’s a concern that the business case for some of those isn’t there, what projects do you think might more realistically have a similarly transformative impact?
Well, I mentioned earlier, the NWT polytechnic university.
A similarly transformative impact?
Absolutely. And we saw some of that: the City of Yellowknife did a study on a polytechnic university and I agreed with many of the conclusions that were reached there.
You know, I had an opportunity to visit Akureyri, in Iceland, a few years back, a city of 19,000 people and the second-largest community in Iceland. They have a university there. There are Canadian students there because they can’t study circumpolar topics anywhere in Canada. So it has transformed the community.
And I think we have a similar opportunity here in Yellowknife, working with the other communities to build something for the Northwest Territories that helps focus research and development, and focuses on the priorities that we do best. That’s the kind of transformative change that I wish our cabinet had pursued the first time I was an MLA. We started down that road, and I was very happy to support it. And now we’ve got to close that in the next assembly.
Is the territory on-track to deliver the kind of university you’re describing?
I’ve had a chance to meet with the associate deputy minister that’s leading post-secondary revitalization and I know that the education minister as well is very committed to this. I’ve indicated to her that I’m ready to go to bat for that work as well.
But the pitch was never made in Ottawa to try to sell that. I know that we need to do some feasibility work and development work around that. But whenever cabinet went to Ottawa, it was really to pitch the large infrastructure projects. And I wish that they had gone, and I suggested that they should go, really to pitch this idea of investment in education. Because I think that will help transform our economy and help diversify.
We only have so much time, so I’ll move on. I want to talk about childcare. One of the items on your campaign brochure is “affordable and high-quality childcare.” Universal daycare is something that other candidates have on theirs. Now, I know that initially you and Julie Green, among others, fought for universal daycare to be a part of the mandate, and ended up backing down, essentially, halfway through the term. Now is universal daycare, therefore, beyond the NWT right now?
Absolutely not, and I still believe in universal childcare. There was a study done at the end of the last assembly that indicated the cost would roughly be about $20 million, $25 million a year. And that is affordable, especially when you look at the kind of spin-offs it will bring in terms of more people being able to get engaged in the economy, the taxes that they will pay, the businesses that will be getting more active and the taxes that they will generate.
At the end of the day it will actually cost you substantially less when you look at the benefits that it can bring to the Northwest Territories. So yes, I still very firmly believe in universal childcare and it’s something that we need to pursue.
The feasibility study about the cost that you’re referring to also said it would take about 229 additional people and a 56 percent increase in the number of spaces. How do we achieve those?
Yeah, well, there are a number of communities that still don’t even have childcare. I think we can make more efficient use of some of the schools in those communities. And when we redesign and rebuild schools, we’ve got to think about including space for childcare within the envelope.
We just passed a capital budget where there’s going to be, say, with Sissons school being redone, a school in one or two other communities… and that’s not generally part of the work that’s done in designing new schools. So that needs to be incorporated right off the bat. I think that’s one way that we can start to offer more affordable and higher-quality childcare in all of our communities,
You have an ambition to pass a Climate Crisis Act. What would be in it?
In the last term, we had an Auditor General’s review of previous efforts on greenhouse gas strategies and climate change. And they they really gave us a dismal failure as a government. At the root of that was the lack of sort-of the structure, authority, organization within government to make sure that it was going to be a success, and nothing’s really changed.
So what I think we need to do in with the Climate Crisis Act is establish a lead department, probably ENR, that will have the authority to actually get other departments to the table. We need to also work with a variety of stakeholders across the NWT, including industry.
We need something like a leadership council. We used to have a roundtable on the economy and environment, we need something like that, that will help focus everybody moving in the same direction around climate change.
We also need to make sure that the investments that we make into our infrastructure, and just regular spending on a day-to-day basis, consider climate-change implications. We also need to have very strong public reporting about how the carbon tax is going to work with the energy strategy and the climate change strategic framework, to make sure that we meet the pan-Canadian framework targets.
And we actually have to move beyond that to make sure that we keep climate change to the lowest levels we can in the Northwest Territories.
Just going back to you saying that nothing has really changed since the Auditor General’s report, I feel like some of the staff or the ministers, if they were here, might say, “Well, we have the climate change strategic framework. We have an energy strategy. We have clear plans in place.” How do you analyze those?
Well, the climate change strategic framework has some good ideas there. But in terms of specific targets and actions, and money behind them, there’s nothing there.
Well, there are specific targets.
Yes, in terms of reaching the pan-Canadian framework, a lot of that is contained in the energy strategy, but the climate change strategic framework itself… there’s lots of ideas in there, then it says, “We’re going to do work on these.” Well, we’re past the point now where we can continue to do work and think about things. We need action.
The energy strategy is largely focused… 44 percent of the greenhouse gas reductions are supposed to come from expansion of Taltson. Well, Taltson? There’s no buyers for the expansion that is contemplated in the strategy. By the time power lines could be built to the diamond mines, some of them will be closed. That is not a good thing to hang the greenhouse gas reductions on, one major project that’s back-end loaded in the strategy itself. That’s not going to do it.
Would you go ahead with Taltson?
Look, I’m all for using the energy that’s sort-of spilling over Taltson right now. And that should be used to help build the regional economy in the South Slave, absolutely. A submarine cable to Yellowknife? If it’s affordable, that might be something that we could afford and would be interesting to look at.
But it’s not really green energy if you start to move beyond that, if you require additional empowerment. Right now, the trout in Nonacho Lake’s headwaters are contaminated. You’re not supposed to eat them, there’s a public health advisory out because of mercury. So additional empowerment is not really green energy.
If we don’t have buyers, we don’t have a real business case for this. I’m not sure what the point of this is, I don’t think we’ve had the hard analysis behind it.
More than once from you we’ve heard, in the past four years, the complaint that cabinet were not working collaboratively with regular MLAs. Conversely, cabinet have more than once complained that you are not working collaboratively with cabinet. We’re now seeing candidates who were no part of any of that coming into this studio and saying they want to offer the public something different than you, collectively. How do you propose to fix that reputation that you, as 19 MLAs, got in the past four years?
Look, I had lots of ideas on how we could move together more collaboratively in the last assembly. And I’ll give you a few specific examples.
When the budgets came to the regular MLAs, there was no consultation, there was no work with us to seek our input into the budgets before they had been developed. Whether it was the operating budget, or even the capital budget, to say, “Gee, what are you guys thinking? What kind of priorities do you have? Is there a way that we can work together to include some of this in the budget?” It was, “Here’s the budget that we’re developing, take it or leave it.”
It involved a lot of effort to try to extract some minor concessions in a few areas here and there, it ate up a lot of time. So I think if there had been some work with regular MLAs before the budgets even came forward, that would have been a huge improvement. And I suggested that every single budget to the Minister of Finance. It didn’t happen.
I think with some of the legislation that came forward, there were opportunities to give standing committees the heads-up, “This is the direction we’re going in.” Particularly that the post-devolution legislation, to say, “Gee, these are the main issues we’re facing.” When standing committee would make recommendations about things, the minister would say, “Look, we’ll take those ideas, we don’t know, we’re going to have to consult with the Indigenous governments about whether that can happen or not.” That’s great to know but what is the position of cabinet going into those negotiations with the Indigenous governments?
I think some of that legislation would have been significantly improved and the review process would have been more effective and more efficient if standing committees had been kept more in the loop. So there’s a couple of ways, I think.
I’m looking forward to some new leadership at the top. We’re going to have a different premier in the next assembly and I think that’s going to be a very positive development. And I look forward to having an improved relationship with all of cabinet.
And you know, I did work collaboratively with many of the individual ministers. I mentioned I had a private member’s bill, I had to work with the Minister of Health on that. I worked with the Minister of Justice on the victim services review. We together developed some some good things: 911 access to information. So there were some definitely some good things that came out of this assembly.