A directly-elected Nunavut premier?


Nunavut MLAs displayed much wisdom last week in Baker Lake when they decided to postpone the idea of creating a Nunavut-wide election to choose Nunavut’s premier.

In doing so, they resolved — for now — one of the most important issues left to them by the Nunavut Implementation Commission.

After studying the idea, and throwing it out for discussion at a Nunavut-wide meeting in the fall of 1996, the NIC concluded that a majority of Nunavut residents supported the idea of a directly-elected premier.

But they also found that few people appreciated the difficulty of designing a Nunavut-wide premier’s election in a manner consistent with the principles of consensus government and the British Westminster system.

The Westminster system of parliamentary government, whose unwritten, traditional conventions form the basis of parliamentary government in all Canadian legislatures, doesn’t contemplate the direct election of government leaders.

To stay in power, premiers and prime ministers must retain the support — or “confidence” — of their legislatures. In a political party system, a government leader gets that support automatically if the party to which he or she belongs holds the majority of seats in the legislature.

The beauty of this system is that it can work with — or without — political parties. With or without political parties, the premier and cabinet must retain the support of the legislature to stay in power.

In the early 1980s, the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories easily adapted this British tradition as a non-party-based consensus system evolved within the Yellowknife legislature.

But what would happen to that principle if voters, and not Nunavut MLAs, were to choose the premier in a Nunavut-wide election?

Nunavut MLAs don’t relish the prospect of finding themselves stuck with a premier and cabinet who, potentially, would not require the confidence of the House to stay in power. This concern appears to have been a major factor in Baker Lake last week, when the Nunavut caucus decided to stick with the status quo.

Of course, the potential relationship between a directly-elected premier and the Nunavut legislature would depend greatly upon the exact means by which such a premier would be elected.

A directly-elected premier chosen from a list of eligible candidates who are already sitting MLAs would likely possess a different kind of mandate than a premier who is not necessarily a member of the House. It’s also conceivable that other conditions could be imposed that would permit the legislature, in some clearly defined circumstances, to remove or discipline a premier.

But the decision that MLAs made in Baker Lake last week rests upon a widely-held assumption: that regular MLAs would definitely lose control over the executive branch of government should a Nunavut premier ever be directly elected.

Is this a valid assumption? Probably. But it’s also possible that a carefully designed mechanism for the direct election of a Nunavut premier might allay those fears.

Nunavut MLAs made the right decision — for now. It’s obvious that the question requires much careful work and study, and more time to do that work and study before a final decision is made.

But Nunavut MLAs should not forget where the idea of a directly-elected premier arose in the first place — within a frustrated public fed up with their inability to influence government policy at election time. JB

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