A direct election for Nunavut premier? Look before you leap

There are no options for a directly elected premier in which regular MLAs do not lose power

Should Nunavut MLAs choose to hold a plebiscite on whether Nunavut’s premier should be chosen in a Nunavut-wide election? (File photo)

By Jim Bell

Some people believe the best way to improve the quality of territorial government in Nunavut is to start using a direct, public vote to choose the premier.

One of them is Aggu MLA Paul Quassa. Nunavut MLAs gave him the premiership on Nov. 17, 2017. In just seven months, on June 14, 2018, the same group of MLAs took the job away from him.

Now, Quassa is advancing a proposal that could permanently weaken the power of regular MLAs and make it far more difficult, and perhaps impossible, for them to remove a premier in the future.

He’s given notice that this fall, he plans to ask the same MLAs who removed him from the premiership to support a Nunavut-wide plebiscite on the question of whether Nunavut’s premier should be directly elected.

In support of this idea, Quassa points to the work of the Nunavut Implementation Commission in the mid-1990s. That’s the long-forgotten 10-member body that created the first blueprints for Nunavut’s public government, under the terms of a long-forgotten agreement called the Nunavut Political Accord. In 1996, they recommended that a Nunavut premier should be directly elected in a Nunavut-wide vote to be held prior to legislative assembly elections, and that such a premier should have the power to hire and fire their own ministers.

So Quassa is correct. The Nunavut commission put lot of work into looking at a system for the direct election of a premier. Their favoured option was actually drawn from a list of 12.

Kitikmeot Community Futures Inc., Job Opportunity – Executive Director

The commission did this because, at that time, there was deep, widespread dissatisfaction with the territorial government everywhere in the Northwest Territories, including within the three regions that later formed Nunavut. Elected people at all levels, including MLAs, territorial cabinet ministers and officials with Indigenous organizations, were producing multiple gaffes, scandals and outrages, many related to domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and the abuse of women and children.

Voters on either side of the division boundary were deeply frustrated. The non-partisan consensus system did not appear to offer a way of expressing that dissatisfaction in a general election.

But the three parties to the Nunavut Political Accord—Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories—did not adopt the idea of a directly elected government leader and left the decision to the future Nunavut legislature.

It didn’t take long for Nunavut’s first group of MLAs to make up their minds. In March of 1999, they chose a premier and cabinet from among themselves.

And in June 1999, at a caucus retreat in Baker Lake, MLAs decided to stick with that system.

“Caucus agreed that the current method of selection of the premier will remain in place to ensure that the holder of the position is accountable at all times to the elected members of the legislative assembly,” they said in a statement issued on June 17, 1999. (The italics are ours.)

No surprise there. Every one of the Nunavut commission’s 12 options would have seen the regular MLA caucus lose power and influence.

Indeed, there are no options for a directly elected premier in which regular MLAs—and the small Nunavut communities and regions that many of them represent—would not lose power and influence.

That brings us to today. Just last month, regular MLAs doubled down on the principle that their predecessors asserted in 1999, insisting the premier and cabinet are accountable to the public only through the work of regular MLAs.

“Regular members are responsible for effectively holding the government accountable to the people of Nunavut through our scrutiny of the government’s budgets, business plans, bills and policies,” they said, in a gruff letter of warning signed by John Main, the chair of the regular members’ caucus.

This suggests that if he wants his colleagues in the legislature to support the idea of an elected premier, Quassa has a tough hill to climb. Even Premier Joe Savikataaq says he’s opposed to it.

That’s not a judgment on the merits of Quassa’s plebiscite proposal, which he made, obviously, in good faith. It simply means political realities could prevent such a plebiscite from ever being held.

However, if MLAs, or the cabinet, do decide to leap into a plebiscite on the question of a directly elected premier, they must do so with their eyes wide open.

And they absolutely must provide the public with a specific, detailed proposal setting out how such a system would work. Simply asking people whether or not they want a directly elected premier wouldn’t be good enough.

That’s because the greatest danger posed by a directly elected government leader is that, without sufficient safeguards, the system could create a four-year dictatorship run by an unaccountable, bullying demagogue.

So a description of those safeguards, in the form of a detailed proposal, must be built into any plebiscite question.

Keep in mind that the winner of such a vote wouldn’t really be a “premier” anymore. Such a system would create a new type of position, similar to that of a U.S. state governor, moving Nunavut towards American-style republicanism. There, the head of the executive branch of government—the governor and cabinet—do not sit in the state legislature.

It would likely create a stronger executive branch, empowering ministers, deputy ministers and the rest of the bureaucracy. At the same time, it would weaken MLAs and their legislative committees.

Given that vote-rich Baffin would likely dominate a Nunavut-wide election, this idea might also weaken and permanently marginalize smaller regions like the Kitikmeot. Is that what Nunavut residents really want?

And who would be eligible to run for premier? Any adult resident? Sitting MLAs only? Above all, how would MLAs get rid of a directly elected premier who abuses their power or engages in unethical behaviour?

And when would the election for premier be held? In the period prior to a general election of members? After a general election?

Also, it’s essential that such a system provide for a second run-off vote between the top two finishers of the first vote to ensure a candidate gets least 50 per cent of the vote before being declared premier.

If the legislative assembly can’t provide detailed answers to these and other questions prior to a plebiscite, then they shouldn’t hold one.

Meanwhile, there’s a simpler solution to the question of how to choose a premier on a Nunavut-wide basis. And that is to abandon the current non-partisan system and embrace a party system.

But that may not be a good fit for Nunavut either. Stay tuned for an editorial on that subject soon.JB

Selection of a Premier in N… by on Scribd

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(18) Comments:

  1. Posted by Qanukiaq on

    Maybe we can look to Nunatsiavut on how they elect their leaders.

    • Posted by holeee election on

      scary they cannot control what goes on at the Legislaxtive so they want to have a mock election, they have not been trustworthy at all for any person one who wants to be trustworthy becomes scary its going back to the stone age, throwing tantrums at people bully them into submission if they wont they destory LIVES

  2. Posted by MONICA A CONNOLLY on

    Someone suggested during the discussions a year ago that a directly elected premier could be dismissed by a motion of non-confidence precipitating a general election. Unfortunately the comments on last year’s stories have disappeared online. It is totally within the power of the Legislature to create that law.
    You are correct, Jim, that any move to directly elect a premier would lessen to some degree the power of the MLAs. But the present system leaves the premiers of Nunavut and the NWT far, far weaker than the premiers of the provinces and the Yukon.

    • Posted by Former insider on

      “But the present system leaves the premiers of Nunavut and the NWT far, far weaker than the premiers of the provinces and the Yukon.”

      Yep, and in an era of Doug Ford-style premiers, that’s a good thing!

      Do you think we’d ever see another premier from a place like Kugluktuk if we had a directly elected Premier?

      • Posted by Formerest Insider Of All Former Insiders on

        Hogwash. It would depend who the candidate is. Don’t fluff this up with fear-mongering invocations of Doug Ford.

  3. Posted by Not 1996 on

    It’s not 1996 anymore. This is exactly why we are so behind with everything. Too many old boy gangs wants to go back to the “good old days” I think Paul is still upset that he was ousted and trying to figure out a way to get back to being a premier. Paul, it doesn’t work like that. Once you are elected and you promised to do your job as a premier, you do your job. Not after you are ousted. You ask so many good questions you could’ve done as a premier but you screwed up.

  4. Posted by Huckleberry on

    MLAs should elect their premier… less hassle. If we start electing premier we see another promises broken, more expenditure of Nunavut funds, unhappy people noting broken promises (cant make us all happy), like the old days the less we know the better (facebook in our lives made it worse, in a way), let their resume speak for themselves and MLAs provide their own leader. In the old days where leaders obey the wise those were the days.

  5. Posted by Chiamiaq on

    Being a citizen that represented by an MLA doesn’t necessarily mean that your MLA will do the right thing, s/he’ll do what the majority of the MLAs want. It may cost more if we went to a publically elected Premier type of government and should the public disagree with the antics of the new Premier down the road – general re-election?

    Aren’t these elected officials thoroughly vetted? Do they understand their ‘Code of Conduct?’ So many pros and cons to this, I hope the pros outweigh the cons and we can move in that direction. Should we stick to MLA elected Premiership or try and learn if this new political process? Everyone has a right to free speech, open your mind, be innovative, be forward thinking. Good luck and I’m perplexed, if explained properly I’d support it but for now I could lean either way.

  6. Posted by Inuk Person on

    Voter turn-out is always very low, why bother with more elections?

  7. Posted by Ice Cold Buzzard on

    Direct election for Premier….the candidates would have to have some knowledge of each regions history and needs towards making a good territory be governed by the peoples’ elect… as population grows the Inuit will be going the next step to …

  8. Posted by Taima on

    This sounds like just another distraction.
    Government has already got Nunavut locked up tight.
    The government controls almost everything.
    The cabinet controls the government.
    The premier controls the cabinet.
    The legislature controls the premier.
    And nothing gets done.
    The housing crisis is getting worse.
    Education is a mess.
    Mental health is a disaster.
    Physical health is not much better.
    TB is still a national disgrace.
    Incarceration is tragic, and a way to survive homelessness during 9 months of winter.
    Unemployment is highest in Canada, while southerners are hired every day to fill jobs in Nunavut.
    More than a $100 million is paid each year to outside consultants for studies and reports that get ignored.
    The GN does not trust its own employees, neither those from Nunavut nor the ones hired from the south.
    Nunavut has open government, but everything is confidential.
    The cost of living is the highest in Canada.
    GN employees are working under an expired contract.
    Food insecurity is rampant.
    Addiction is the highest in Canada.
    Nunavut’s biggest export is its most educated people.
    “Let’s continue to ignore all that, because we don’t know what to do about any of it.
    Instead, let’s spend the next several years talking about how to select a premier.”
    Meanwhile, people go hungry, people are homeless, people are sick, people feel helpless, people are frustrated.

  9. Posted by Putuguk on

    It is a sad that the only solution to our representation woes being discussed or put forward is to directly elect a Premier who could frame and deliver a “strong mandate”.

    What about gender parity in the Leg? We had a plebiscite on that and it barely lost with a very low turnout. The Nunavut Implementation Commission put very strong arguments forward for that, and their reasons are no less valid today.

    If we have to make any changes to the way our legislative assembly runs, I would not rush to party politics or populism as solutions.

    I would count it much better and an actual improvement if men and women had an equal say in how the government runs.

  10. Posted by Snow Snake on

    Name a territory or province that currently elects their Premier.. We don’t have any political parties represented in our legislature – think about it

  11. Posted by Political Observer on

    The problem with a party system is that the same group of powerful people control all the main parties.

    There will be a federal election in October.

    The Conservative and NDP candidates for Nunavut have already been announced. Did you have a say in who they would be? I didn’t.

    Who voted to select those candidates? When did they vote? Where are their party offices in Nunavut? Generally the party leader selects the candidate, but who selected the party leader?

    We will get to choose between a few, pre-selected people who are all beholding to power brokers.

    Canada is likely to have either a minority government or a coalition government after the next federal election.

    The Bloc will increase its number of seats.
    The Liberals will lose seats.
    The Conservatives will have about the same number of seats as they now have.
    The NDP will lose seats.
    The Greens will gain seats.
    Mark Bernier’s party will gain seats.
    More Independents will be elected.

    In Ottawa, with party discipline, only the party leaders and the Independents will have a real say in who forms the next federal government.

    In Nunavut, each MLA has a say in who the Premier is and who sits in Cabinet.

    Compare that to a system with a Strong Leader, such as Idi Amin, Sudam Husain, Cadafee, Putin, Castro, etc.

    Personally, I’d prefer a good leader who people choose to follow, rather than a strong leader who people fear.
    Which system offers the most likelihood of Nunavut getting good leadership?

    • Posted by iThink on

      I agree with your points. I would also caution that a party system lays the ground for deeper and systemic polarization within the legislature. That is, it sets up an antagonistic dynamic between the members; the long term consequences of which are now being seen in the west. That Nunavut does not have a party system now is a blessing, not a sign of being backwards or stuck in the past.

      • Posted by Right On on

        Right on. I could not agree with you more.

  12. Posted by Graham White, University of Toronto on

    Proposals for a directly elected premier have been around since before NIC. In 1993, at the request of the NWT Legislature, I wrote a paper about the possibility of electing the NWT Premier at large. It was discussed at a strategic planning session but no action was taken.

    Jim misconstrues what NIC recommended. In the report he cites (page 85), the Commissioners recommended that the first Nunavut Premier be elected in the traditional (NWT) way – by vote of all MLAs and that appropriate federal legislation be passed (an amendment to the Nunavut Act) that would make it possible to directly elect the Premier. But they did not recommend one way or another on the basic question.

    A Toronto academic like me has no business suggesting to Nunavummiut whether they should go for a directly elected Premier. What I think it is reasonable for me to do is to emphasize, as noted in Jim’s editorial, that doing so would likely have very far-reaching consequences and that it would pretty much be impossible to undo of it doesn’t work out. The matter has to be thought out very carefully. And a simplistic yes/no plebiscite on a very complex issue is not the way to go.

    In Nunatsiavut, the President is elected by all beneficiaries and sits in the Assembly, along with the First Minister (i.e. Premier) and her cabinet. Seems to work fairly well. However, the Nunatsiavut Government and the Nunatsiavut Assembly are organized on very different lines from the GN and the Nunavut Assembly. So don’t make assumptions about whether the Nunatsiavut approach would work in Nunavut without very careful analysis.

    • Posted by Jim Bell on

      Thanks for your comment, Graham. It’s much appreciated and helps clarifies what the NIC actually recommended. Thank you.

      But I have one question. You refer to “page 85” of the report that I cited. However, the report I’m talking about runs to only 70 pages, “Selection of a Premier in Nunavut and Selected issues.” It’s the one embedded on Scribd under the editorial. Which report were your talking about? One of the NIC’s later reports?

      The main point I was trying to make is that in the summer of 1999, the first group of elected MLAs rejected the idea of a directly elected premier, on the grounds that the premier should be accountable to MLAs at all times. The current group of MLAs re-emphasized that principle in the letter of expectation they sent to Premier Joe Savikataaq during their last sitting.

      So I was suggesting that since this is the current political reality, it seems unlikely that this fall, those MLAs would even support a plebiscite on a direct election for a premier. Why would they give up their jealously guarded power to hire and fire a premier?

      The rest of the editorial, as you can see, was an attempt to point out some of the complex questions that would have to be answered before a direct election for premier could be contemplated…

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