NWT Election 2019: Kieron Testart’s Kam Lake interview
Kieron Testart is hoping to remain the MLA for Kam Lake.
Testart is putting forward what he calls a “bold northern platform” focused on sustainable development, community health and wellness, better public services, and a “strengthened democracy.”
Despite being the incumbent, Testart sought to portray his five Kam Lake challengers as “status-quo politicians” in his interview with Cabin Radio. Testart said he, instead, had spent four years offering real alternatives in the legislature.
Calling for a new northern tax benefit alongside universal daycare and a pilot of a universal income program, Testart said infrastructure spending should be cut back by five percent so the territory can “invest in northerners.”
While acknowledging his bid to establish a form of quasi-political party for this election did not achieve “critical mass,” Testart said the territory must still examine its democratic foundations. “Let’s have a discussion on proportional representation, around guaranteed seats for Indigenous peoples,” he said.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Testart’s interview air date is September 10.
More information: Kieron Testart’s campaign website
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: Run us through your priorities for the next four years.
Kieron Testart: That’s a great question, because I’ve had four years to think about it. And the three big issues for me are the cost of living, getting the economy back on track, and supporting northerners who need our help the most.
I believe that I’ve worked with my colleagues over the last four years to come up with some real alternatives to status-quo policies in the Northwest Territories, and they’re going to make a real difference. I put those together in a fairly comprehensive platform and I hope to advance those priorities with the next assembly,
You do have a pretty comprehensive platform available through your website. Give us a few highlights from that. If you’re going to pick out the ones that you think people most need to hear about, what are they?
I’ve heard politicians for a very long time, both before and after me, talk about the cost of living and say it’s their number one priority. And yet northerners know that governments have not really succeeded in lowering the cost of living. I’ve really tried to find creative solutions to that problem.
The first kind-of big-ticket item is a new northern living benefit. And that’s a tax benefit that we pay to northern families, income-tested to make sure it hits the people who need it the most and targeted towards the middle class – middle-class families and those looking to join the middle class. Ninety-seven percent of northerners file their taxes, so this kind of benefit would put money in northerners’ pockets, and many of my proposals are about that, supporting the economy by putting money into your pocket.
What kind of money?
Well, that’s the thing. Designing a tax benefit like this takes a lot of work. And in the Northwest Territories, we do not have, you know, a sufficient amount of policy development outside of the legislature. So there’s some things I was very comfortable costing – this one isn’t one of them. But if it’s advanced as a priority, we will develop it together. But I want it to make a difference, not just be five bucks at the end of the month.
There’s a suite of fairly similar policies in your program, a universal basic income pilot and universal daycare among them… similar social assistance packages that look as though they’re expensive, but things that people want.
We are a small population, you know? One of the things we talk about is how do we attract people to the North? How do we support local economies? And the way to do that is to invest in northerners and northern families. Things like universal basic income, things like daycare, those are proven models that work. And investing in those? Those are the kind of priorities I’d like to see.
We can build all the infrastructure we want but, if there’s no-one living in the North to take advantage of it, it’s not going to do a lot of good. We’ve seen big infrastructure investments over the years and they haven’t turned the corner on the economy. We haven’t caught up with our two sister territories. And that’s what we need to change.
And so you’re planning to reduce infrastructure spending by five percent. Now, how much money is that?
It depends on how much the budget actually looks like.
Let’s take last year’s, a $325-million capital budget. So… about $16-million-ish, year on year?
If you take a look at the total revenues – between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion, it does fluctuate – the first step of the infrastructure budget is to determine your operations and maintenance spending. And that determines how much you can spend. That five percent, that’s just one of the shifting fiscal priorities that I want to tackle. There’s short-term borrowing, there’s new partnerships with Ottawa, there are private-sector partnerships, and there are new revenue sources to pursue as well.
You know, you can’t pay for everything. This platform, I hope to accomplish a lot of it, but the idea here is to give a whole lot of things for the next 19 members to consider and find where we can agree on, because that’s how consensus government works.
I suspect if there were to be a criticism of this platform, it will be that there is a lot in it, and a lot of stuff that a lot of people have asked for, but I’m not sure I could see where it was all going to be paid for.
Yeah, and again, you need to develop a fiscal strategy to address your priorities. One thing we did in the 18th assembly, for example, we followed through with the GNWT’s fiscal priorities that were primarily driven by debt management and by the upper echelons of the public service, and not necessarily responding to what MLAs heard on the campaign trail and what MLAs wanted to do.
So going forward, you know, I definitely want to change that and use that first day before there’s a cabinet sworn in to find the common ground we need to, to identify the priorities we can all accept, and to make sure those are the ones that are costed and are implemented.
If you are going to go and advocate for a five-percent reduction in infrastructure funding when you get to that meeting, what five percent are you reducing? What are we not building?
That’s the overall percentage, historically, that we’ve spent. We’re not talking about infrastructure funding to communities, we’re talking about what the GWT spends on its own public assets. So that five percent is just less. Ongoing projects, they already will have carryovers, because we’ve seen that – what the last capital budget commits to do, that’s still going to get done.
Just going forward, we have a little bit less to work with because we’re going to be investing in northerners through new tax credits, new benefits, and new programs that are going to keep northerners in the North and support northern families.
OK, so there’s nothing that you can point to to say, “Look, to give you an idea of how we save this money on infrastructure, we just won’t do this sort of project”?
It’s going forward, right? So it’s not like, scrap the Mackenzie Valley Highway and use the money for something else.
No, but it might be: scrap the next one.
Sure. It might be shifting those priorities, because what northerners need right now is short-term to medium-term economic relief and short to medium-term growth. We need to reverse the trend on a four-year recession that’s coming.
You’ve talked about fast-tracking the Taltson hydro expansion through private-sector partnerships. Where do you think those partnerships might come from?
I think they come from Atco, honestly, and Northland Utilities. This is a proven northern company.
Have you spoken to them?
I have spoken to some backbenchers in the Alberta government… but I haven’t spoken to anyone in an official capacity because I’m a regular member, you know? I’m looking to see if there is support out there.
I know Northland wants to stay in the North and I think it’s important to have a private-sector partner in the North. Atco as a corporation has a $3-billion infrastructure budget, that’s something that we can take advantage of. They own all the transmission lines in northern Alberta.
By entering into a P3 partnership with them, and giving an equitable share of the profits over the short term, we can start selling that power north. I haven’t seen a compelling business case yet and I think we need private-sector support to get there, to get to that business case.
And the criticism from some other candidates of the Taltson plan has been that there are no buyers yet, and I think you have a proposal for that as well.
Yeah, to Saskatchewan and Alberta. One thing I know the Alberta government under Premier Kenney is very interested in is lowering the carbon footprint of Alberta’s power-generation system. And they don’t have big hydro in Alberta. They’re actually considering a plan to get Manitoba’s hydro capacity.
We are right there. To build a hydro line to Manitoba seems excessive so, if we’re ready to go and their government is still interested, that’s a buyer right there. We just need to find that private-sector partner to make it possible.
One item on your platform that I want you to explain a bit, because it’s a fund that we very rarely hear about, is changes to the Heritage Fund. Why is this important?
There’s a statutory review of that Heritage Fund coming up. This is the fund that our resource revenues are deposited into.
Many people have heard about Norway’s fund – it’s over, I think, close to a trillion dollars, it’s a massive fund. So what they’ve done in Norway is put all their resource revenues in this fund, and they use the interest to support their programs and support their government. It’s a great way to manage your resource wealth because it preserves the balance of the fund for future generations if needed, but you can access the interest over short term.
Our fund doesn’t do that. It gets a very small trickle of money – it’s actually losing money against the balance of the fund, because it’s not generating enough. We desperately need to repair this fund and I think, by transforming it into a sovereign wealth fund – where we can use the interest for the short-term goals of the territory, while preserving the balance for future generations – we’re doing right by our children, our grandchildren, and the generations to come. And we have some more money for our programs and for infrastructure,
Switching over to healthcare, NWT-based treatment facilities are in your platform. There’s been a lot said about them in recent years as to whether that is workable or not. Why have you decided they are?
I kind-of feel like I’ve let some people down on that because, in 2015, I ran to build a brick-and-mortar treatment centre – and I was convinced by my colleagues, primarily cabinet colleagues, that it wasn’t the right way to go. But people never stopped calling for it and, looking at the state of the downtown core today, we need to do more.
And I’m not talking about a full-blown clinical facility with PhD doctors. I’m talking about a brick-and-mortar facility for a managed alcohol program and for a detox centre, and I think those are entirely achievable, entirely workable, and within the means of this community to support. That’s what I’m committing to.
We need to do something. We can’t just keep hoping that the southern treatment model is going to work, because we are still facing a huge amount of problems. And the people I’ve worked with trying to get into these programs, sometimes the waitlists are very long. You have people on the edge who can’t access help just because they’ve been having trouble getting there.
At the same time, you’re advocating for opening up private sale of liquor and cannabis in all NWT communities where it’s not already restricted or prohibited by plebiscite. That might need a little bit of explaining, in that context, why you believe that’s important?
And it’s not just me doing it. Well, prohibition doesn’t work, right? That’s a proven fact. And with cannabis, we’ve seen that the initial approach to cannabis hasn’t worked either. We haven’t made a big-enough dent in the black market and bootlegging is a huge problem. I believe in personal responsibility and personal choice, and those are the values that need to inform our liquor regulation system.
I think for this community, that’s a tourism hub, the rules are very restrictive for businesses, for our hospitality sector, and for festivals as well. So there’s a lot of demand out there to modernize these laws and we need to have that conversation. So I’m committed to do it but not without the public’s input. And certainly I would never want to change that plebiscite option that allows communities to decide on how liquor and cannabis works in their communities.
“New offers to all active negotiating tables when it comes to land claims.” Are those better offers that you’re promising, there?
I’m promising offers informed by a nation-to-nation relationship, and to make nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous nations the underlying philosophy of the GNWT. It’s long overdue. We say we do it, but I think the Dehcho and Akaitcho Process would disagree. I like having a clear timeline to offer people so you show you’re serious about doing it. We had… the previous government, the premier committed to new offers for the Dehcho within 120 days, and it didn’t happen. So you know, this shows people that we’re serious, it shows people we’re going to do things differently. By informing that reality and that perspective, I think we’ll get a better result.
Every government here in the NWT seems to come into a four-year term convinced it can solve land claims, and it hasn’t happened yet. Heart of hearts, do you believe it is possible to do that in the next term?
I think we made a lot of progress on… I think the Akaitcho Process has come a long way. I’m not going to personally take credit for that but I think there was a lot of heavy lifting done by both the federal government and the territorial government. There’s that special rapporteur who was brought in for both processes, but the Akaitcho Process seems to have moved considerably. Dehcho is still at loggerheads and a lot of that comes down to political leadership. You know, last I saw, the grand chief has basically requested the GWT to butt out and for them to have a sole relationship with the feds. And that’s not realistic, you know? So we need to repair that relationship.
We need a government that truly recognizes reconciliation as a principle and stops trying to hold back the kind of changes that are inherent to self-government. That means direct bilateral funding from Ottawa, it means creating almost a confederacy within the Northwest Territories of different levels of government that still work together cohesively.
We only have a limited period of time, I will keep rattling through topics. The new family reunification stream that you propose for immigration to the NWT – how will you achieve that without federal changes?
Well, the thing about these immigration programs – and Quebec and Manitoba are great examples – is they built the programs and then they went to Ottawa and said, “This is what we want.” And Ottawa said, “Absolutely.” I had a chance to talk to Minister Hussen when he was here in Yellowknife, and he said the exact same thing: “If you want these changes, you’ve got to tell your territorial government to do them, and then we’ll get to work on it.” So that’s what this is designed to do. We build the program that northerners need to support labour market at supply in our economy, to support newcomers who have come to our communities and want family reunification, and we pitch it to Ottawa and say, “Make these changes happen.”
Family reunification is so important because the lottery system really disadvantages northerners, because we are such a small community. All those people in Toronto and Vancouver, they’re waiting at their computers as soon as the lottery opens, they’re taking all the spots, and we can’t keep up. So having a dedicated stream that gives us a few of those opportunities, and reserves them for the North, is just going to make us a more attractive place to live and work.
Not so long ago, you were sat in this studio talking about a “shared platform” that you were going to try to pursue in this election. It hasn’t ended up happening. What happened to it?
Well, you know, we wanted to ensure that if we’re going to do it, it was going to have real results for northerners. And that means running a slate of at least 10 candidates that could bring a new vision to the North. Working on that, we weren’t able to achieve critical mass.
There are a lot of reasons for that, that are probably longer than this interview can handle, but sufficient to say there are number of people who want things to stay the same. They made their opinions known to the people we were working with.
But my plan was always, and our plan as an organization was always, to develop it before going live. We didn’t want to do anything in secret, we wanted to be open and we always were. But unfortunately, there was a leaked document and that kind-of blew things up.
If you were always open, how can there have been a leaked document?
Well, you don’t want to go out with something half-baked, right? You want to work on something that’s a fully realized vision and that has opportunities for participation. Without any kind of formal legal structure in the Elections Act to allow for that, you have to take your time and carefully do it, so you can ensure the maximum amount of people can participate and it doesn’t feel like a forced decision. That’s not what any of us wanted to see. We wanted to see a realistic, democratic option that northerners could consider.
And to be clear, political parties remain a part of your platform.
No, not explicitly, but democratic reforms, certainly.
“The forming of political associations in the NWT.”
To create more democratic options, I think, is an entirely workable thing for the Northwest Territories. And I’ve also talked about: let’s have a discussion on proportional representation, around guaranteed seats for Indigenous peoples like they have in New Zealand, and around ending first-past-the-post voting. And to balance the rules on political financing, which is just not sufficient to allow time for challengers to build up support for their campaigns. There’s a lot of stuff we need to talk about. That’s not my focus of my platform.
My focus, and what I’m hearing from my constituents, is we need to do something about the cost of living; we need to find ways to support northerners staying in the North; and we need to get our economy back on track. I’ve always been here for Kam Lake, my entire career. I have thousands of words spoken on the floor of the house. Nine of them had to do with party politics and that was on one day at the legislature. The other competitors in Kam Lake want to talk about party politics an awful lot, but I want to talk about the economy.
There are quite some competitors in Kam Lake. How do you interpret the fact that four years ago there were two candidates, you were an MLA for four years, and now there are six?
Look, I love our democracy. And I love that people have so many opportunities to run and get involved. And I thank all the competitors are stepping up. I think the way I see it, I’ve looked through their platforms, I’ve looked through their ideas… many of them are similar to mine, but the big difference is that I’ve always been willing to offer meaningful alternatives to the status quo, and to speak up even when it might have had consequences for my colleagues in the legislature. And they are not willing to do that.
They are all being very strong on the fact that they’re going to represent the status quo and support that status quo. And it doesn’t surprise me to see so many status-quo politicians stepping up. But that’s the way these things go.
Lastly, then, give us an example of when providing an alternative to the status quo made a real difference to the lives of northerners in the last four years.
In 2016, when the government brought forward a huge austerity budget – cutting $150 million out of spending that would have cost a lot of jobs – the regular members worked together as a block to push back against that. We stood up publicly in a press conference and said, “We’re not accepting this budget unless it changes.” We got the cabinet to back off that austerity plan and to bring forward more balanced spending moving forward.
If we had just rubber-stamped that decision and said, “Times are tough, it’s time to tighten your belt,” we would have had a very different economy today.
Looking at the collective action, you know, we were close to the largest public-sector strike in history, and you are intimately familiar with that. And I think it took some some MLAs standing up against some of the political advice we were getting – to keep quiet and just let things play out – to actually call for binding arbitration. And I’m very proud that we did that. Because standing for northerners is always my priority.
I’m not terribly convinced many people think regular MLAs standing up for binding arbitration made any difference to the outcome, do you?
We had binding arbitration in the end. I think putting that political pressure on the process brought some resolution to it that didn’t result in a divisive strike that would have had far-reaching consequences on our economy.