In an unusual emergency cabinet reshuffle, NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane on Tuesday unseated her minister of municipal and community affairs (Maca) in order to take the position herself.
The Maca minister can use a wide range of powers triggered by a state of emergency, which the Northwest Territories first declared on March 24. Cochrane said she needed a “more hands-on role.”
As Maca minister, Cochrane will now directly oversee the emergency management organization set up to coordinate the NWT’s coronavirus pandemic response. She said the old structure provided only for smaller-scale emergencies like floods or wildfires, not a pandemic, and it was “appropriate” for her to take charge.
“We are a new government. We have only been into this for five months. We got hit with Covid-19 at the beginning,” said Cochrane. “I’m probably the most experienced as a minister right now. It made sense because of my experience.”
Paulie Chinna, the Sahtu MLA, held the Maca portfolio until Tuesday. Chinna retains responsibility for the NWT Housing Corporation and homelessness.
Cochrane said she would “look at reassigning the position back” once the pandemic ended.
“The challenge Covid-19 presents to the Northwest Territories requires a coordinated, team approach from cabinet to manage successfully,” she said in a statement on Tuesday morning.
“As leader of the team, I feel it is my responsibility to take a more hands-on role in managing the cabinet team and directing the government’s response through personal leadership of the emergency management organization.”
Cochrane told a news conference Chinna had been “doing a wonderful job” but “needs to focus her full attention on dealing with the issues that housing has already.”
“I have full confidence in all of my cabinet,” Cochrane said. “Minister Chinna is totally understanding and totally supportive of the appointment.”
The territorial government said: “Overseeing this collaborative effort is consistent with the premier’s responsibilities … to provide overall management and direction to the executive branch of the Government of the Northwest Territories.”
Premiers leading large departments is not without precedent in the NWT. Bob McLeod held the industry, tourism, and investment portfolio for almost a year after the 2015 election before handing it to Wally Schumann.
McLeod did not, in his eight years as premier, take back for himself any portfolio he had already assigned to a minister. The last time a premier did so in the territory, if ever, was not immediately clear.
‘A very bold move’
Cochrane was previously the minister of municipal and community affairs from 2016 until 2018 under McLeod, before being moved to education.
Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, said the premier’s decision to take the Maca portfolio was “a very bold move, and one that comes with very broad power to respond.”
Ultimately, Johnson said, he supported her decision.
“Where the premier’s authority starts and the minister of Maca’s authority ends has been unclear in our response to date,” Johnson wrote shortly after Cochrane’s announcement.
“With this reassignment it is now abundantly clear who is the political lead on our emergency response.
“I hope we will now be seeing much more of our premier providing clear, concise, and factual updates to the public on our Covid response.”
‘Public face’ of the response
All departments are involved in responding to Covid-19, but Maca is the department tasked with leading emergency management at territorial level.
Cochrane’s move follows the recruitment of a senior government manager to help Maca’s efforts last week. Russ Neudorf joined as an associate deputy minister with specific responsibility for ensuring the emergency management team gets everything it needs.
Addressing reporters on Tuesday, Cochrane said: “Around the world, we are seeing national leaders take charge. At the provincial and territorial level, premiers are the public face of the response.
“We are taking Covid-19 seriously. Any department that needs to be bumped up with resources … I have been adamant that we will put [in place] the resources needed to protect our people.”
Cochrane acknowledged there was nothing she could do now that she could not before, but felt the move gave a “stronger focus” to the NWT’s response.
The premier added she was located in Yellowknife, where the emergency management team is headquartered, whereas Chinna is not, which would provide for a quicker response in some situations.
She reiterated that “more enforcement” will be announced later this week, though the details remain unclear.