Improving the legislative assembly
About five weeks from now, the first Nunavut legislative assembly will become part of history.
On Jan. 9, the assembly will dissolve, and on Jan 12. writs for Nunavut’s second general election – to be held Feb. 16 – will be issued.
The assembly will likely sit just one more time, when MLAs reconvene in Iqaluit on Dec. 2 to finish their sixth session. We hope, for their sake and for ours, that they get their work done before the Christmas break.
So how well have they done?
All things considered, not as bad as some were predicting after its first real session, in May of 1999. That’s when it became obvious that this body was going to be dominated by inexperienced rookies, unused to the ways of modern government.
But some of those rookies, such as Peter Kilabuk, Olayuk Akesuk, Hunter Tootoo, and Glenn McLean, have matured into fairly effective politicans. And we’ve only lost two MLAs to criminal convictions. Given the drinking and dope habits of many Nunavut politicos, these embarassments could have got a lot worse.
Too many MLAs, however, have failed to mature. They’re not serving themselves, their constituents, or the people of Nunavut in any capacity.
As a result, the Nunavut legislative assembly is still in the same state as the Nunavut government – a weak, fragile institution in need of development and careful nurturing.
When Nunavut’s MLAs are in session, they can can be infuriating and sometimes frightening in their ignorance. We’ve seem them fritter away hours of valuable time asking and answering trivial questions that could easily have been settled by a phone call or two. At the same time, we’ve seen little discussion of Nunavut’s real social and economic issues.
But this is not the time to throw our hands up in the air and give up. Like Nunavut, the legislative assembly is a work-in-progress.
So what can be done to make it better? The best solution, of course, is for the public to elect better MLAs on Feb. 16.
But the electoral system isn’t perfect, and the best candidates don’t always win.
Nunavut may have a small population, but we can take pride in the large numbers of talented, educated people who live here. The problem, however, is that many of them aren’t interested in electoral politics. Many of Nunavut’s most talented people are either pursuing careers as non-elected government officials, or in private business.
So until better people can be attracted to territorial politics, we can expect to see inexperienced, under-qualified MLAs sitting in our legislative assembly.
But after the election, the legislative assembly should invest much more in MLA orientation and training than it did the first time.
And the Nunavut legislative assembly should be treated as a continuous, long-term exercise in political development.
To that end, we humbly recommend the following for the next legislative assembly:
* Hire more and better staff people, especially members’ assistants, to provide research, political advice, and other forms of support to MLAs, especially the rookies.
This is because many MLAs, and even some cabinet ministers, get terrible political advice from their executive assistants and constituency workers – and it shows. In particular, many regular MLAs need help doing research and preparing questions. Some don’t even understand the legislation they’re asked to vote on.
* The assembly should contract someone to do a long-term series of workshops to explain where the government gets its money, where it goes, how the tax system works, and how statistics are used to guide policy. This ought to include explanations of not only the formula financing agreement, but the many other intergovernmental agreements used to fund important programs such as housing, health and language development.
This is because many MLAs are especially weak on budgetary issues.
Right now, few ask good questions about budget issues, and they are not performing the watchdog role that the public expects.
* The assembly should also contract someone to do series of workshops on Nunavut’s economy, and on business in Nunavut, perhaps using Conference Board of Canada materials as a point of departure.
This is because Nunavut’s first group of MLAs, with some exceptions, have failed to display any understanding of Nunavut’s economic problems. Many MLAs do not understand business, and many Nunavut business people do not have confidence in their MLAs. Over the next four years, however, Nunavut’s economy will become an unavoidable issue, and MLAs had better be prepared to deal with it.
* The assembly should sponsor educational trips to give MLAs a chance to observe how other, more effective, consensus-based public bodies do their work, such as the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife, or the Kativik Regional Government in Nunavik. JB