Eighteen months ahead of the next territorial election, politically minded residents are backing various types of electoral reform in the NWT.
From introducing party politics to using ranked ballots, people have plenty of ideas about how to improve politics in the territory. Not everyone agrees on the best options.
Former MLA Kieron Testart, once president of the NWT’s branch of the federal Liberal Party, has long championed the idea of territorial political parties – a discussion that stretches back decades.
“The system isn’t working. It’s not working for the everyday northerner, it’s not working for communities, it’s not working for Yellowknife,” Testart told Cabin Radio.
“[It’s] politics by the lowest common denominator. What we have at the end of the day is a risk-averse government that struggles to accomplish its priorities at the best of times. Every tweak that is tried to improve the supposedly non-partisan system we have doesn’t seem to create any kind of real progress.”
In 2018, when he was the MLA for Kam Lake, Testart introduced amendments that would have allowed the registration of territorial political parties. The proposal was defeated by a large margin.
The case for party politics
Testart believes there is resistance to party politics in the NWT because MLAs seeking re-election or cabinet positions have no incentive to make the switch. He said those goals are easier to achieve in consensus government as candidates don’t have to run on a party platform or work as part of a team.
Testart said he sees no separation between top public servants and political leaders in consensus government. He argues that forces policy advisors and deputy ministers to take a political position rather than remaining neutral and results in a lack of change to public policy, regardless of the outcome of an election.
Having political parties as the Yukon does, Testart said, allows like-minded people to achieve their political goals at the territorial level.
“Without that instrument of a unified political slate that can deliver results to their communities, what we have is the same complaints perennially throughout every single elected assembly,” he said.
Testart believes consensus government struggles to discipline elected leaders.
As an example, he said “extremely troubling behaviour” by former Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn had to be handled through a public inquiry, costing $800,000 in public funds. Had Norn been a member of a political party, Testart argued, he could have been swiftly ousted from the party, and its associated privileges, without any cost to taxpayers.
“We had an almost million-dollar exercise in supposed accountability that allowed the issues to stretch out and stretch out,” Testart said. “It’s almost defined the Assembly at this point and continues to be a live issue that people are talking about on the streets.”
Not everyone sees that inquiry the same way. Discussing the same process and costs this month, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said Norn’s removal showed “consensus government worked.”
“It was painful but it did work,” O’Reilly said in the legislature. “It did cost some money but that is the price of democracy, in some ways.”
Richard Edjericon became the new Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA after Norn was ousted by his peers in a 17-0 vote in November 2021. An independent adjudicator recommended the move after concluding Norn had breached the MLAs’ code of conduct by breaking Covid-19 isolation and misleading the public. MLAs separately described a “pattern of intimidating, threatening and insulting behaviour.”
Katrina Nokleby, the MLA for Great Slave, sees benefits to party politics but feels consensus government suits the NWT. She said its success comes down to the strength of the people running.
“I would stick strongly behind staying with consensus but maybe looking at how we’re operating that consensus government and to fine-tune some of that,” Nokleby said.
“The problem is if you’re not electing people that are really truly there for the right intent, that can set ego aside to work together, then it won’t work.”
Nokleby said there can be a disconnect between the philosophy of consensus government and the British parliamentary style of government that is used in the legislature. She does not believe she would have been removed from cabinet, which happened in 2020, had she been in a political party.
Nokleby added running independently can be challenging as candidates have to take criticism for their personal opinions rather than hiding behind a party platform.
With a high turnover of MLAs, there’s not the same long-term experience in cabinet as there would be with a party system, she continued, and there can be a loss of continuity. As an example, she said the next government is not obligated to continue the current “government renewal” strategy – the review of territorial programs to see if money can be spent more efficiently – although there will likely be political pressure to do so.
Should the NWT use ranked ballots?
David Wasylciw, founder of OpenNWT – an initiative to make NWT government data more accessible – supports consensus government. He argued change should be focused on improving that system, like the use of ranked ballots.
“When you look at something like ranked ballots, it really does take the kind of government that we’re trying to run and do it better,” he said. “It follows that line of consensus-building and having candidates that truly represent their community.”
Ranked ballots are a form of voting where instead of voting for just one candidate, voters can indicate their second and subsequent choices. This aims to ensure voters select the candidate they want to win and that the winner has the broadest support.
Most political parties in Canada use ranked ballots to elect their leaders. London, Ontario, held its municipal election by ranked ballot in 2018, the first and only Canadian city to do so.
Wasylciw, too, believes many politicians are loathe to change a system that got them elected. He said there has yet to be serious discussion of ranked ballots in the NWT and there is currently no appropriate avenue to consider such changes.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said he supports ranked ballots even if they wouldn’t have resulted in his election in 2019.
“There’s a problem with sending people to legislatures without a majority of support or some sort of clear mandate,” he said. “Ranked ballots are the obvious solution to make sure that the people who are actually the first choice of voters are getting elected.”
Johnson said he proposed a referendum on whether the 2023 election should use ranked ballots but he “didn’t get much support” from fellow MLAs.
Voting age and electoral boundaries
Johnson wants to see permanent residents permitted to vote in the territory’s elections and the voting age lowered to 16. He suggests starting by allowing younger people the option to vote on school board elections.
Nokleby supports decreasing the minimum voting age alongside an education campaign.
“The youth are a lot more engaged than I probably was,” she said.
Other changes Wasylciw has proposed include lowering the limit on campaign spending or offering rebates on some campaign expenses to make running more accessible.
Finally, he suggested the option of multi-member electoral districts in large communities like Yellowknife, Hay River and Inuvik, similar to the way in which city councillors are elected.
Wasylciw said that would mean MLAs aren’t restricted to one section of a community and could instead advocate for issues that affect everyone.
“It’s funny that people running for city council in Yellowknife have to campaign to 20,000 people but an MLA campaigns to 2,000 to 3,000 people at most,” he said. “Council, it’s a much more competitive, community-wide race.”
Potential changes to electoral boundaries are being considered ahead of the next territorial election.
The NWT Electoral Boundaries Commission stopped receiving submissions from the public last month. Among options the commission has proposed are removing an MLA in each of Yellowknife, Hay River, and Inuvik.
The commission will provide recommendations to current MLAs about changes to electoral districts. Ultimately, MLAs must decide which, if any, changes are approved.