Energized NWT voters wonder if this is real change
Residents in the NWT expressed shock and enthusiasm overnight as they grappled with an election that upturned politics in the territory.
Only seven members of the last Legislative Assembly will return for the next four years, should the unofficial results stand – two districts, Frame Lake and Yellowknife North, were close enough to trigger a mandatory recount.
Just one cabinet minister emerged with their seat. Four ministers stood down before the election and two were decisively rejected by voters on Tuesday.
The election of nine women smashed the territory’s previous record for female representation in politics, instantly turning the NWT into the leading jurisdiction for percentage share of power held by women.
“I’m proud to call the NWT home tonight,” one female Yellowknife resident posted gleefully to Twitter.
Andrew Livingstone, a former senior communications staffer for Premier Bob McLeod’s cabinet now working in Alberta, wrote online: “Six incumbents out, one on the ropes by a slim margin, and three win by slim margins. This speaks volumes to the need for things to be done differently.”
A jubilant Wendy Bisaro, who was the MLA for Frame Lake from 2007 to 2015, wrote: “Nine women headed for the 19th Assembly! Yahoo! That’s almost 50-percent representation. Well done ladies! All your hard work has paid off. I look forward to following your progress and achievements over the next four years.”
Caroline Wawzonek, one of the nine women elected, said: “I’m thrilled that there’s going to be a new perspective, a more diverse perspective.” She won Yellowknife South by several hundred votes in an all-female contest and replaces McLeod, who did not seek re-election, as the district’s MLA-elect.
“I was running as someone who had a set of skills and perspectives to bring forward,” Wawzonek told Cabin Radio, paying tribute to “the possibility that more people will see themselves reflected in who’s in the Legislative Assembly.”
“I mean, that’s tremendous,” she said.
Bigger shift than 2015
The results suggested the NWT voted emphatically for change, even more so than in 2015, when eight incumbents were defeated.
At the time, 2015’s results were greeted as a potentially transformative moment. However, with the same premier and several cabinet ministers returning, in practice the ensuing four years represented a broad continuation of the previous government.
This time, only Caroline Cochrane – who held her Range Lake seat by a wafer-thin 18-vote margin over Hughie Graham – returns from the cabinet of the past four years. Jackson Lafferty, acclaimed in Monfwi, also has cabinet experience in a prior government.
That leaves the NWT with 11 newly elected MLAs who have no prior experience of territorial politics; three acclaimed MLAs returning (Lafferty, RJ Simpson in Hay River North, and Frederick Blake Jr in Mackenzie Delta); one former MLA returning after a four-year absence (Jackie Jacobson in Nunakput); and four incumbents who managed to hang on to their seats: Kevin O’Reilly, Julie Green, Cochrane, and Shane Thompson.
“The absolute first thing is to make sure that all 19 numbers are working as a unit,” said Wawzonek, alluding to the widespread perception that bickering and personality clashes had obstructed the working of the outgoing government.
O’Reilly, Green, and Cochrane held on to their seats by a collective 60 votes, such were the narrow margins even for successful incumbents.
O’Reilly’s 11-vote gap in Frame Lake over former minister Dave Ramsay is subject to a mandatory recount, as is Rylund Johnson’s five-vote defeat of Yellowknife North incumbent Cory Vanthuyne.
All eyes will now fall on who this new legislature chooses to become the next Premier of the Northwest Territories.
Industry minister Wally Schumann, who had been considered a likely front-runner, was turfed from office by Rocky Simpson in Hay River South.
That leaves Cochrane, RJ Simpson, and Lafferty as leading candidates, though little attention has so far been paid to first-time MLAs who might boldly try for the job.
It is not clear what effect the presence of nine female MLAs will have on the behind-closed-doors vote to choose a premier on October 24. Dominated by male MLAs until now, the vote has only ever produced one female premier: Nellie Cournoyea in 1991.
Cochrane said prior the election she believed it was time for a second female premier, and said she had proved her ability to work hard. She could not be reached late on Tuesday night for comment on whether the day’s results may have in any way reshaped her approach or analysis.
The tough task now, for both newcomers and returning MLAs who promised to inspire change, is finding a way to quickly demonstrate they are getting things done and shifting the territory’s priorities.
The 19 MLAs must persuade and manage senior bureaucrats who have, for years, led teams working hard to implement policies many candidates now say should be scrapped or, at least, heavily amended.
The territory remains legally bound to all manner of contracts, large and small, in the service of its priorities over the past four years. Choosing to undo strategic decisions of Bob McLeod’s government in order to pursue new priorities could require a largely inexperienced legislature to stickhandle significant shifts affecting hundreds of employees.
That process will begin with the creation of a mandate – a guiding document for the government of the next four years – once a premier and cabinet are chosen.
The last mandate, with 230 items, was seen by the end of McLeod’s government to be too unwieldy, too inflexible, and lacking in meaningful ways to measure whether the right things were being accomplished. Ministers, regular MLAs, and civil servants all agreed on that.
So the mandate itself requires a redesign, before new MLAs even consider what items might appear within it.
And when they reach the point of picking priorities, the NWT’s new politicians will be forced to confront the fact that the territory is, clearly, deeply divided.
The Frame Lake contest, split by 11 votes between an environmental flagbearer and servant of industry, is proof that the electorate does not definitively know what it wants.
It will be up to the new government to chart a course that rewards voters with the genuine change they requested at the ballot box. However, the trick will be doing so while winning over residents who backed a differing vision on Tuesday, only to see their chosen candidates narrowly lose.