Caroline Cochrane addresses reporters at the legislature in November 2019. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Caroline Cochrane pledged action to tackle the territory’s “desperate” housing need as she sought to manage expectations in one of her first news conferences as NWT premier.
Cochrane assigned portfolios to her six cabinet members earlier on Tuesday. Addressing reporters’ questions on Tuesday afternoon, she said those ministers would be given time to settle into their roles before any significant shifts in policy were announced.
“I don’t see any major changes, other than what comes with the mandate, until about six months down the road,” said Cochrane, flanked by those ministers at a lectern. “And then we’ll be having those conversations.”
The mandate is the name for the finalized list of NWT government priorities, which is still to be decided. An initial one-page draft published last month listed 22 broad priorities.
Despite urging patience, Cochrane said regular MLAs should start providing suggestions for what those major changes could eventually be.
In what appeared a clear attempt to paint a contrast between her administration and that of her predecessor, Cochrane said regular MLAs – those who aren’t in cabinet or the speaker – would be fully consulted before any big policy changes are finalized.
Premier Bob McLeod’s government of the past eight years was routinely criticized by regular MLAs over the perception that cabinet pushed ahead with minimal consultation, though some of McLeod’s ministers disputed that characterization. McLeod acknowledged he had governed with “cabinet and three friends,” referring to three regular MLAs whose votes provided McLeod with the necessary majority to pass legislation.
Similarly, while McLeod’s government made a public commitment to transparency, regular MLAs routinely complained that his cabinet did not follow through on that promise.
Cochrane has made no such formal commitment – transparency was not mentioned among the 22 initial priorities set out by all 19 newly elected MLAs – but said on Tuesday each minister would be instructed, in their mandate letter, to act in an open and accountable fashion.
“Some of the people here might realize that we don’t have a minister any more of transparency,” said Cochrane. Louis Sebert was the transparency minister of the past four years.
“I think that transparency is important for every single minister,” Cochrane continued, “so therefore we won’t have a minister specific to that department. Every mandate letter will have that for all ministers.”
‘New ways’ to fund housing
Virtually all candidates in October’s NWT election called for urgent action on housing. Asked if her cabinet would elevate the profile of the Minister Responsible for the Housing Corporation – now Paulie Chinna, the Sahtu MLA – Cochrane said her team would begin looking for innovative solutions to the crisis.
“We know that we’re in desperate need,” she told Cabin Radio. “If we don’t fix our housing issues, that impacts health, the economy, and all the different areas that we do.
“We will be looking outside the box to find new ways to put housing on the ground.”
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a federal agency, is set to end all financial support for social housing by 2038 – meaning the territorial government must slowly assume full responsibility for those costs.
“We have to start thinking about: how do we support residents to ensure that there are more houses on the ground, but the GNWT can still pay [to maintain] the houses that are used?” Cochrane said.
However, the premier repeated that no big shifts would be likely in the near future.
For example, she said the suggested amalgamation of some departments or renaming of others would not take place if MLAs, once thoroughly consulted, did not want to see it happen. The same process would apply to creating a finalized list of priorities for the next four years, she said.
Merging the departments of Municipal and Community Affairs and Lands is one proposed change. “We will move forward on it when, and if, the MLAs think that it’s the appropriate thing to do,” Cochrane said.
“If we are looking at getting our land claims settled, and self-governments … we need to start the discussion on what does that look like for the Government of the Northwest Territories?
“Do we need to have such a big department if we don’t have such responsibilities? Those are suggestions put out there. I’ll be working with standing committee and the regular MLAs to define if that is a great idea, or not.”
Standing committees are panels of regular MLAs that meet regularly and examine issues and legislation in detail. They provide oversight of ministers’ work.
“I am really excited,” Cochrane concluded. “We have a great set of ministers here with us. I’m really expecting that this assembly is going to be very powerful.”