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
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.
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
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