The process by which the Northwest Territories selects its premier and cabinet is to be reviewed by a commission featuring a judge and members of the public.
At the moment, MLAs voted into the NWT legislature hold a series of secret ballots among themselves to select a premier and cabinet members. The premier then hands departments and other responsibilities to each minister.
That system has come in for some criticism as it means – with no political parties in the NWT’s consensus form of government – voters have no direct say in who leads the territory.
For the first time, an Electoral Boundaries Commission that ordinarily reviews how MLAs’ districts are divided will also consider how the premier and cabinet are chosen.
The commission must be chaired by a judge or retired judge from the NWT’s Supreme Court or Court of Appeal. Members of the public can express interest in serving on the commission by February 10. (MLAs and municipal councillors can’t be involved.)
Public hearings to gather the views of residents will be part of the commission’s work.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who serves as caucus chair for the current group of 19 MLAs, said there had been “discussion about a number of reforms” at a recent caucus retreat.
While MLAs plan for the time being to pause discussion of introducing political parties, Johnson said they agreed “extensive public consultation to see whether there is another way to select the premier or cabinet” would be valuable.
As an example, he cited the established NWT practice of selecting two cabinet members from the territory’s north, two from the south, and two from Yellowknife, alongside the premier.
“A lot of us questioned the two, two and two, and whether that necessarily led us to the best cabinet,” Johnson told Cabin Radio on Friday.
“There is definitely room for improvement. I think the secrecy is a problem and the two, two, two element doesn’t end up with the best cabinet.”
MLAs could be added
Johnson characterized the forthcoming Electoral Boundaries Commission as “the most important in the history of the NWT.”
As well as examining how the premier and cabinet are chosen, the commission is expected to assess how fairly the NWT’s communities and residents are represented by the current, 19-MLA system.
Past research has suggested Yellowknife is under-represented by up to two MLAs, though smaller communities have often argued that the city holds more sway than it should, politically if not numerically.
The Tłı̨chǫ region is statistically under-represented by one seat, Johnson said. A commission could explore adjusting this by either adding MLAs, removing MLAs, or redrawing the various electoral districts.
Johnson said he would be fascinated to hear the commission’s thoughts on how a premier and cabinet are best chosen. He himself could see no simple answer.
“I don’t think there is an easy way to directly elect the premier,” he said. “I don’t think people understand the consequences that would have.”
Taking the US presidency as an example, Johnson said there was no clear way to marry that form of republic – where one person is elected who then leads and appoints their own cabinet – with the existing UK-style parliamentary democracy.
“That is just a completely different system of government,” the Yellowknife North MLA said. “There is not really a hybrid system.”
He said he there might be room to switch to “more of a chief and council or mayor and council system,” but added that would complete change how ministers work.
The forthcoming commission, he said, was “just step one” in figuring out the answers to many questions about the territory’s consensus system.