Bob McLeod says his successor Caroline Cochrane’s Northwest Territories government is “bailing water trying to stay afloat” after two years in power.
McLeod, who was the NWT’s premier for eight years before Cochrane took over in 2019, issued a withering assessment of the present territorial government, stating “the bottom has fallen out of the economy” on its watch.
Interviewed by his own former principal secretary, Gary Bohnet, McLeod said of Cochrane and her ministers: “I think they haven’t done a very good job. If anything, they’re barely keeping their heads above water.”
Such a blunt public critique of a successor is deeply unusual from a former NWT premier. However, McLeod was joined by Joe Handley – premier from 2003 to 2007 – who told the same Cabin Radio program he had seen “not a lot of strategy” from the current government.
Listen to full interviews with Premier Caroline Cochrane and former premiers Bob McLeod and Joe Handley from 12:15pm on Tuesday, November 23, repeated at 2pm on Saturday, November 27, or get the podcast.
“It seemed like things were piecemeal, were happening as occasion led them to it,” Handley said.
Neither Handley nor McLeod had the impacts of a global pandemic with which to contend while leading the territory.
Cochrane, interviewed by Bohnet, rejected the suggestion her government was underperforming in the circumstances.
“We’ve actually been doing a lot better than I thought we would have been doing,” the premier said.
“We developed a mandate – I believe 149 mandate commitments. And although we’ve been working desperately with Covid, we’ve been working toward those mandates as well. We are projecting that the majority of those mandate commitments will be fulfilled by the end of this government.”
In the legislature on Monday, Cochrane – at the halfway point in her premiership – told MLAs: “While we continue to manage a significant outbreak of Covid-19, we are focused on getting on with the business of government. Residents expect us to continue to deliver high-quality programs and services and advance the priorities they have set for us, to ensure a better future for all residents and communities. We are committed to this work.”
‘Phenomenal’ funding from Ottawa
Critics of McLeod during his eight years in power often highlighted what they felt to be his government’s single-minded obsession with infrastructure. He argues that was what the territory’s economy needed – and still needs.
“I haven’t seen any new initiatives,” McLeod told Bohnet’s Straight Talk show, “other than the government came out with an economic opportunity strategy. But it’s very broad, it doesn’t have any specific investments that would help the current businesses that are struggling.
“We don’t see any support for some of the longer-term, large projects that would really turn things around.”
In 2017, McLeod issued a “red alert” in which he called for “an urgent national debate on the future of the Northwest Territories,” highlighting southern decisions that affected the territory such as the Trudeau government’s moratorium on offshore oil and gas development.
He now says Cochrane’s NWT risks irrelevance as his government once did, and needs to repeat the same trick.
“We reached a point where we were totally exasperated because, no matter what we said, there was no media coverage of what was happening in the oil and gas industry,” said McLeod.
“And finally, when we got some professional assistance as to how we could get a response, and we came up with the red alert, we got an immediate response.
“I talked to the Prime Minister when he put in place the moratorium on offshore oil and gas. He said, ‘We will replace it with clean environmental jobs and investment in the economy.’ And so that requires a lot of work, working with the federal government to have a shared vision and to get work done on diversifying and developing a sustainable economy. I don’t see any of that going on.”
Cochrane entirely rejects that characterization, arguing both that her government is making huge infrastructure investments and has strengthened the federal relationship McLeod had.
Referring to having introduced “the largest infrastructure budget in the history of the government,” Cochrane said she was working to advance all three major projects pursued by McLeod: the Mackenzie Valley Highway, expansion of the Taltson hydro system, and the all-weather Slave Geological Province highway.
“All three are critical and we need to continue plugging away until we get all three accomplished,” she said.
“We work really closely with the federal government. Very closely. And it’s paid off. We’ve gotten phenomenal amounts of funding from the federal government – and also we work closely with the indigenous governments.”
Climate change means ‘tremendous opportunities’
Handley suggested the NWT government should be subject to a mid-term review that moves beyond the 11 regular MLAs analyzing cabinet’s progress.
“The mid-term review just shouldn’t be just the MLAs with the door closed, doing it themselves,” he said. “I think they might want to bring in some Indigenous governments, in particular, because they’re critical to what is happening in this territory.
“Just have a good look at what’s working, what isn’t working. And how do we change it?”
Both Handley and McLeod used climate change mitigation as an example of an area where they believe the current government is getting it wrong.
“I heard the minister for environment comment, ‘We can’t do much, it’s up to the federal government.’ We can’t have that attitude,” said Handley, referring to remarks made by Shane Thompson.
“Our attitude’s got to be: we’re a territory, we’re the North. We’re going to do it our way.”
“There are tremendous opportunities happening now with climate change,” said McLeod. “We have significant amounts of commodities, rare metals that we’ll use to deal with climate change.
“Now’s the chance to take advantage of it, get back to attracting this investment. And I think that once we get on the national radar, they’ll pay a lot more attention to us.”
Cochrane, like Thompson, believes the NWT’s approach to climate change can be nothing other than heavily reliant on federal decision-making – and cash. Four times in five paragraphs, her fall statement to MLAs highlighted the importance of federal support.
But she suggested the “whole bunch of money” the NWT had secured from Ottawa for housing demonstrated that such reliance pays off if relationships are right.
“Housing is definitely one of our success stories in this government,” Cochrane told Cabin Radio.
“We managed to get $25 million for this year – for the GNWT – for housing. And we’ve also got $60 million for co-investment funding. As well, we’ve been promised more.”