When consensus government works

In the photo above: swearing in MLAs of the 18th Assembly

Most of us have probably had the experience of explaining consensus government to someone who is unfamiliar with it. The person doing the listening is bewildered. “Who chooses the premier? If executive council is a minority, how does anything get done?” And, most important, ”how does accountability work if you don’t have political parties?”

I find that question the most difficult to answer, and the failed mid-term review didn’t make it any easier.  A quick recap: MLAs of the 18th Assembly decided to conduct a mid-term review of the performance of Executive Council to improve accountability, a key election issue in 2015. The Rules and Procedures Committee created a process and MLAs spent hours debating and refining it. Last October, the mid-term review took place in the Legislative Assembly.

As far as accountability went, it was a bust. After speeches, questions and answers in committee of the whole, MLAs voted by secret ballot to remove Thebacha MLA Lou Sebert. The next day in the House, a motion to remove him failed. Why one result one day and another the next day? Because, in public, Executive Council decided to vote as a block. There was no requirement for them to do so. There should have been a free vote on Mr. Sebert’s removal where each member voted on the instructions of his constituents. It’s this ability to vote freely rather than on party lines that makes consensus government unique. What we got instead was block voting and an accountability failure.

Fast forward to June 14, to the non-confidence motion in the Premier at the Nunavut Legislature. MLAs there had already decided they wouldn’t be doing a mid-term review in 2019. But some were obviously dissatisfied with Paul Quassa’s performance. Using the same process available in the NWT Legislature, a member introduced a notice of motion, and two days later the motion came forward for debate. The debate was brief, followed by a free vote on the motion. Because it was a free vote, Cabinet members could vote as their constituents and consciences guided them. Six members of Cabinet voted non-confidence, along with ten regular MLAs. The result: Quassa was dismissed and Joe Savikataaq was elected to replace him.

The process in Nunavut showcased how accountability can work. It provided for a level of transparency around dismissing and choosing a leader unheard of in party politics. It demonstrated how nimble consensus government can be when accountability is required. No need to wait until the next election: the problem can be solved with two days’ notice.  NWT MLAs, especially those in Cabinet, should be interested in promoting accountability in consensus government.  We owe it to voters. And if we’re not prepared to improve accountability, the need for party politics to do the job will continue to nip at our heels.