A direct election for Nunavut premier? Just take it step by step

“If Nunavummiut want it, direct election for the premier could be implemented for the 2021 election”

Could a system for directly electing a Nunavut premier be implemented by 2021? (File photo)

By Monica A. Connolly
Special to Nunatsiaq News

When the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut reconvenes in October, one motion should be passed quickly and unanimously: a plebiscite needs to be held on the desirability of the premier being directly elected by the voters.

A constitutional change of this magnitude can legally be made by the legislative assembly on its own, but by tradition, should not take place without the clear support of a majority of the voters themselves.

One of the more admirable qualities seen in this legislature is a tendency of the MLAs to listen to the people. Question period is full of comments such as, “I hear from my constituents…”

When the issue of direct election of the premier came up a month ago, there was no indication of how much support there would be for the idea, either from voters or MLAs. Surprisingly, formal media interviews, comments and editorials, Facebook discussions, and even one online survey quickly showed that many Nunavummiut have strong feelings on the subject, one way or the other.

The online survey of about 500 people showed 72 per cent in favour of a direct election of the premier. The question facing MLAs this fall, then, is not whether they approve or disapprove of a direct election, but whether they are willing to give their constituents a chance to express their opinions formally.

A referendum or plebiscite is similar to an election, except that instead of voting for a person, voters give their opinions on proposed policies or actions.

The procedure for this plebiscite is for the legislative assembly to decide to hold it, to consult with Elections Nunavut on the question, date, cost, etc., and then to issue formal instructions to Elections Nunavut, which holds the vote and announces the result.

Such a plebiscite would be advisory rather than binding, unless it is formally stated otherwise by the legislative assembly.

In Canada, and Nunavut in particular, there have been a number of plebiscites on constitutional matters, such as the possible separation of Quebec, the Nunavut boundary, the Nunavut capital, and whether or not to have a male and female MLA in each Nunavut riding.

These have tended to be advisory and to have taken place before the detailed work of implementation started, although the first Quebec separation referendum did promise a final approval referendum (which never became necessary).

There are two reasons, in my opinion, why a plebiscite should be held as soon as possible. While recent media activity suggests considerable support by Nunavummiut for direct election of the premier, there is nowhere near the sample size to prove majority support, and the issue was never brought up in an election.

Some sort of mandate is needed for a change or for keeping the present system. Furthermore, this is a well-researched issue with the advantages, disadvantages, and implementation questions already thought out and published: if Nunavummiut want it, direct election for the premier could be implemented for the 2021 election.

As I see it, a plebiscite could be approved in October 2019, held in early 2020, six to 10 months from now, and legislation could be passed in time for the 2021 election.

Jim Bell was right that there is a question here of the balance of powers among premier, cabinet and MLAs. Note that this is not a zero-sum situation, where power given to one part of government is exactly balanced by power taken from another part.

The final approval of a system of direct election or of the continuation of the present system could bring greater or lesser respect—and therefore power—to the whole legislature.

For myself, I support the direct election of the premier because the existing system does not present the people with a choice of visions for the future. This system was developed in the Northwest Territories some 40 years ago, when the commissioner still had great power.

Times have changed, and the Nunavut legislature needs territory-wide dreams and direction, and stability in its leadership, not a perpetual state of minority government managing the status quo.

The question on the plebiscite needs to reveal if Nunavummiut want their premier elected directly or elected, as at present, by the MLAs. That should be a good enough mandate to start drafting legislation if direct election is chosen.

MLAs may want to ask a few other questions at the same time, or leave them to the legislature. For example: could MLAs remove an elected premier if they so wished? (I think it highly unlikely that Ottawa would agree to having a Nunavut premier who was not responsible to the MLAs. That’s an American custom, not British or Canadian.)

Should removing a premier by a vote of non-confidence trigger a general election, so that MLAs who effect a change of government risk their own jobs, too?

Do the people want cabinet members to be chosen and dismissed, as at present, by the MLAs, or chosen and dismissed by the premier, as happens in Ottawa, the provinces and the Yukon?

There are other questions, mostly procedural, not policy, which can be worked out by the legislative assembly and its staff as they draft legislation.

So where do you go from here?

This summer, the MLAs should be confirming with their constituents that enough people are interested in a change to justify holding a plebiscite. That is the first decision that has to be made, and should be made in October. If you want a plebiscite, you should tell your MLA.

The citizenry and the press should also be discussing the pros and cons of direct election, so that public opinion will be well informed, a discussion that needs to continue to the vote itself and beyond.

I haven’t said anything about parties. I have watched several sittings of the assembly online, and have not seen any evidence of party-like divisions. Parties are not legislated, they grow, and then are granted recognition.

Perhaps competition for the premier’s role will sow the seed for political parties, perhaps not. I look forward to Jim Bell’s comments on this topic.

In 1973, Monica A. Connolly was a part-time employee of Inukshuk, the predecessor of Nunatsiaq News. And as the majority owner of Frobisher Press Ltd. between 1975 and 1985, she served as publisher and editor of Nunatsiaq News.

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(11) Comments:

  1. Posted by Bill Riddell on

    This is such an important discussion and Monica has stated it well. One of the issues in the US at this time is who is the President accountable too and Monica has addressed this issue objectively and clearly. Well done Monica. Good luck to my friends and colleagues in Nunavut. Your discussions will be exciting to witness.

  2. Posted by ok, but… on

    I admire your passion for Nunavut and the work you’ve done in the media in the North, but in my eyes you overstepped yourself with this editorial.

    You framed it as if you are a Nunavummiut, which you aren’t (anymore). That concerns me. We have so many southern experts and consultant that can’t help themselves but chime in on certain subjects, but you’ve been getting heavily involved in this online discussion and pushing your side of the argument. I’ll mention that you’ve done so in a civilized matter, but you have to allow Nunavummiut (Inuit and non Inuit) take charge of the discussion. In this editorial you said things like “For myself, I support the direct election of the premier because….” and “there are two reasons, in my opinion, why a plebiscite should be held as soon as possible.” Why do you feel so strongly about this as a non-Nunavummiut? Jim Bell will write some pretty hard hitting editorials but he knows where to draw the line. It’s also his job to write about the North.

    I don’t feel good about calling you out like this, but you’ve made your point multiple times and lead the narrative that this plebiscite is a must (maybe it is). So please let the people whose lives will be affected by this plebiscite discuss it amongst ourselves.

    • Posted by BILLY on

      In Canada we are all entitled to our opinion !
      I would rather listen to Monica from Southern Canada than
      some of the comedians who pass for politicians in Nunavut.
      I wonder if the lady who put out her letter about white
      people, a few months ago , has she moved by dog team to
      her igloo ? Bet she hasn’t.
      Unfortunately some southern people think we no longer want
      housing or development, because of her letter.

  3. Posted by pissed off on

    So OK
    but All current non residents of Nunbavut should be considered as morons that don`t have a clue ???????

    That`s so stupid to exclude from the political and social debate people that have no current vested interests to defend, no job to protect , etc… but have a deep and well founded historical point of vue.
    The great majority of these “ outsiders“ have a deep love of the North and its people that goes back generations.

    Think about it before you write off evrybody as a nuisance.


  4. Posted by Graham White on

    Pushing for a quick plebiscite on such an important and complex question is a seriously bad idea.

    Direct election of the premier is a reasonable idea. I have my views on this but, as a Toronto academic, I’ll keep them to myself. This is a decision for Nunavummiut.

    Making a decision like this by plebiscite may or may not be a reasonable approach, but doing so now would be a big mistake. Why?

    The article says: “this is a well-researched issue with the advantages, disadvantages, and implementation questions already thought out and published”. Really? Where would those thorough published analyses be? In a 1996 Nunavut Implementation Commission report that hardly anyone other than Jim Bell has read in 20 years? In the 1993 discussion paper I wrote for the NWT Legislative Assembly? The reality is that until very recently, no one was thinking about or writing about this issue and that even since the idea resurfaced there hasn’t been the kind of in-depth discussion needed.

    Quite simply, the question of directly electing the premier has all kinds of complications and implications that require careful thought and extensive debate – not least because once instituted it would pretty much be impossible to undo if it doesn’t work out. What’s the rush? Don’t the people and politicians in Nunavut have enough important issues before them – education, language and culture, housing, health care, economic development and so on?

    Consider also: true plebiscites, unlike referenda, are not legally binding. But they carry great political weight. What politician is going so say: OK, the people voted for this but let’s not do it?

    Because plebiscites are expensive, there would be strong pressure to hold the premier-election plebiscite at the same time as a general election to save money. The result would be that local and territory-wide issues would attract most of the attention with insufficient information and debate about the plebiscite.

    Apparently 72 per cent of people surveyed liked the idea of a directly elected premier. Would they have had the same response if it had been pointed out to them that this would inevitably lead to a reduction in the power and influence of their local MLAs?

    The author sees no indication of party-like divisions in the current Assembly. That’s not the issue. The question is whether moving to direct election of the premier would formally or informally bring in parties; no guarantees either way but it’s certainly a possibility. Once parties are established they’ll be there forever. If Nunavummiut want to have parties, that’s their business but do they really want them as an unexpected byproduct of directly electing the premier?

    While it would be essential for the people to be deeply involved in any decision about directly electing the premier, deciding such a hugely consequential matter with a simplistic yes/no plebiscite-referendum – especially without extensive debate – could be asking for trouble. I wonder how the people of the UK feel about the Brexit vote now, or how they’ll feel in another year when Brexit kicks in. Might there be a lesson there?

    • Posted by iThink on

      Nicely said. Monica writes that she has “watched several sittings of the assembly online, and [has] not seen any evidence of party-like divisions.”

      Of course, because there are no parties! The point is that party politics encourages partisanship and at worst can lead to crippling forms of polarization (the US right now is a great example).

      Certainly, party politics may eventually develop here. Personally, I hope that day does not come soon.

    • Posted by MONICA A CONNOLLY on

      A few sources below. Please add more, Dr. White, including the one you mention.
      Footprints in New Snow March 31, 1995 https://assembly.nu.ca/library/Edocs/1995/000666-e.pdf

      Selection of a Premier in Nunavut and Related Issues, July 10, 1996.

      Footprints 2 October 21,1996 https://assembly.nu.ca/library/Edocs/1996/000663-e.pdf

      Direct Election of the Nunavut Premier: Schemes for Legislative Enactment, October 15, 1998

      • Posted by Graham White on

        I have sent an electronic version of my 1993 paper to the Assembly Library; perhaps they can make it available. None of these sources are less than 20 years old. More up-to-date analyses are needed … and lots of discussion. Complicated issues and far-reaching implications here, which is why hurrying to a plebiscite would be a mistake.

  5. Posted by iThink on

    To those who have an issue with an outsider offering their opinion on Nunavut politics; you are entitled to say so, but it is a fallacy to suggest that such an opinion is invalid because of its geographical origins. I would also add that it is small minded and petty, but that’s more a personal intuition than formal logic. These incessant calls to close off of our minds to outside influence is not helping Nunavut, it is more likely to hinder us. Remember, the political system in Nunavut is a modern, Western, liberal creation. Thus, those with experience studying such systems may be able to offer deep and nuanced insights into the mechanics of such systems regardless of their intimate knowledge of societal or ground level issues, which are of course also extremely important. Dismissing outright or trying to shame people for offering their thoughts is not productive, it’s ugly and pointless and suggests you are so insecure with the ability of Nunavummiut to thoughtfully dissect and synthesize information that you would rather they were kept in the dark. This kind of thinking reminds me of life at a Christian school, always afraid that the outsiders were going to influence the children for bad, so we must demonize and spread fear toward them. Drop the hysterics, they are ridiculous.

  6. Posted by Facebook is not evidence on

    The main issue I see with this entire opinion piece is that it relies on an informal Facebook poll to assert that the question is one worth asking. Forgetting for a minute all of the drama of the saga, let’s not forget that the issue was brought up by a premier removed from power, while without much information to the public, by a major majority. His friends and family publicized this poll on Facebook and have the greatest motive to respond and share. There was no real public engagement and literally anyone in the world could have responded to the poll. Who likely wasn’t captured in this poll were people in remote Nunavut communities with less access to the internet.

    A poll with this many fundamental structural and biased based issues should absolutely not be used as an excuse to open up a divisive, unnecessary and expensive debate on what until now has been a non-issue. Not when there are so many more pressing matters that require our attention.

  7. Posted by I want on

    I want a referendum on housing solutions.
    I want a referendum on language use.
    I want a referendum to end social promotion.
    I want a referendum on ways to end violence.
    I want a referendum to clarify Inuit Societal Values.
    I want a referendum on mining.
    I want a referendum on other options for economic development.
    I want a referendum on health, dental and vision care.
    I want a referendum on care for the elderly.
    I want a referendum on the gas tax.
    I want a referendum on incarceration.
    I want a referendum on telling the politicians to deal with the important issues facing Nunavut, rather than trying to distract everyone with continuous re-organizations.

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