Following censure plans, Nunavut waits for word on premier’s place in cabinet
Lawyer, commentator Anne Crawford weighs in on censure process
Will Aggu MLA Paul Quassa still be premier of Nunavut by dinnertime tomorrow night?
That’s the question that’s been on the minds of many Nunavummiut since yesterday, June 13, when Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main gave notice of a motion to remove Quassa from the assembly’s executive council, also called cabinet.
That motion should come forward in the legislative assembly tomorrow, June 14, where MLAs may then make known publicly their doubts about the premier.
Right now, all we know is that this is a “non-confidence” motion, made by Main because he is the chair of the regular members caucus.
The motion is still in a notice period, but should it come forward, a vote would be held in the assembly and each MLA’s vote would later be registered by name. When mid-term reviews of cabinet take place, those votes are not made public.
While ministers have been removed from cabinet before, and past premier Paul Okalik’s resignation was called for in 2007, there’s never been a formal motion brought forward to dismiss a Nunavut premier.
Still, there are many variables at play with this motion.
“It isn’t just ‘he leaves, he stays,’” said Iqaluit lawyer Anne Crawford.
Quassa could be censured without being removed, or the motion could be rescinded if the assembly makes a resolution or compromise, she said.
Besides being Nunavut’s first cabinet secretary, Crawford also acted as commissioner for a conflict of interest inquiry held into the premiership of N.W.T. Premier Don Morin in 1998, before the division of the two territories.
She called this kind of move by MLAs a fundamental part of consensus politics, and a measure that “isn’t present in a party system.” Regular members outnumber the executive council precisely so they can hold cabinet accountable.
“(MLAs) are exercising one of the power mechanisms in consensus government that is rarely exercised,” Crawford said. “This effectively gives them a steering wheel, or set of brakes, to impact what the executive is doing…. The regular MLAs are in the driver’s seat.”
But when does a motion like this usually happen? Typically, when the members feel the executive is out of control, Crawford said—be it related to conduct, approach, respect, collegiality, etc.
MLAs would decide on the motion during a regular members caucus meeting, a frequent behind-the-scenes meeting of MLAs, to which cabinet ministers are not privy.
Those meeting are also where MLAs meet to discuss ideas and strategize, Crawford said.
In the current sitting, questions on the same theme raised by regular MLAs show that there could be a lot of collaboration taking place in those meetings.
“In the past, maybe two or three members have come together to organize questions. In this assembly it looks quite clear that a whole series of members have come together to organize questions,” Crawford said. “That’s a strong suggestion that the regular members caucus has become organized in a way that we haven’t seen in previous assemblies.”
Because the government is currently in session, any vote to oust Quassa from the executive council would lead the assembly immediately into a leadership forum where a new head of government would be elected.
“It would precede the budget, it would precede the legislation that they are looking at, and would precede the proclamation of anything that’s been to third reading,” Crawford said.
Holdups of legislation and the budget could lead to missed sealift schedules and delayed capital projects.
“I’m sure members are weighing all of those things…. Those regular members have to answer to their communities.”
But the MLAs might not even get to the point of voting, Crawford said.
In some cases when a member is up for censure, there will be an unofficial vote called a straw vote where members will make their vote intentions known to cabinet.
“In the case of Premier Morin, he resigned after the straw vote. They didn’t go through with the censure,” Crawford said. “He took the message.”
If the motion is made only against Quassa’s individual actions as premier, then cabinet members would be able to vote in favour of his dismissal.
But if measures in the motion deal with decisions made by cabinet as a whole, then cabinet ministers would be required to support the decisions made by their government, through a principle known as “cabinet solidarity.”
“Members of cabinet are expected to support in the assembly measures that cabinet has supported,” Crawford said. That would mean voting in Quassa’s favour.
Should Quassa be removed from the executive council, he would return to the role of regular MLA.