Ng will be hard to replace
When Kelvin Ng bids farewell to territorial politics early next year, he can do so with his head held high.
Since 1993, when he was first elected to the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories as the member for the old Kitikmeot West constituency, Ng held some of the toughest portfolios in government. He is Nunavut’s first, and only, finance minister. During his time in that job he lowered Nunavut’s personal and corporate tax rates to the lowest levels in the country, and through the deft management of annual operating surpluses produced balanced budgets and no long-term debt.
On April 1, 1999, he took control of Nunavut’s Human Resources department when the new territory’s public service was still on life support. Despite the disorganized mess that Nunavut inherited from the Office of the Interim Commissioner, Ng was able to recruit and retain enough staff to bring most departments to nearly full capacity. He did this in a jurisdiction that is one of the least attractive places to work in Canada, and suffers from a badly educated and unhealthy work force. He also negotiated a difficult collective agreement with the Nunavut Employees Union, avoiding a public service strike that at times seemed inevitable.
Before the creation of Nunavut, he survived a rough stint as minister of health and social services in the Government of the Northwest Territories, surviving numerous problems created by shrinking health contributions from Ottawa and various crises within regional health boards.
Even before he entered territorial politics, Ng had built up a strong résumé as a municipal leader, serving as municipal councillor and mayor in Cambridge Bay, president of the Northwest Territories Association of Municipalities, chair of the Cambridge Bay housing association, and deputy speaker of the Kitikmeot Regional Council.
No one will ever accuse Ng of being a flashy politician. If he were a hockey player, he would be Bob Gainey, not Guy Lafleur. He rarely calls attention to himself, rarely grandstands, but usually does it what it takes to get the job done.
Unlike so many other Nunavut politicians, Ng never brought embarrassment to himself or to his office. In public, and in the legislative assembly, he consistently maintained a dignified and professional demeanour. Outside of the territory, he was a worthy ambassador for Nunavut.
As finance minister, Ng never took the easy way out. He never resorted to telling people what they wanted to hear and his messages were always tempered by a realistic assessment of Nunavut’s financial limits.
While giving his last budget speech, on March 11, Ng wore a pair of borrowed kamiks to symbolize the government’s commitment to frugality — and to send a serious message to the next government.
He warned that the Government of Nunavut is beginning to spend more money than it receives, and that it must find new sources of revenue to maintain current levels of spending. He also warned that the GN’s program review exercise might, in the future, lead to program cuts and reductions. In a jurisdiction like Nunavut, where nearly everyone is dependent, directly or indirectly, on some form of government spending, it takes guts to say these kinds of things, and it takes political skill to survive saying them.
Ng endured much criticism for all the time he spent in Yellowknife, and many critics, especially the Nunavut Employees Union, accused him of not being a real Nunavut resident, sheltered from having to cope with Nunavut’s high cost of living. To be fair, though, Ng maintained a dwelling unit in Iqaluit.
But for a Cambridge Bay MLA, a residence in Yellowknife makes more sense than a residence in Iqaluit. That is dictated by Nunavut’s geography, and by Nunavut’s inadequate air transportation system. It takes at least two days to fly from Nunavut’s capital to Cambridge Bay — but from Yellowknife, it’s only a two-hour flight.
Given his valuable years of service to Nunavut, Ng’s choice of residence is a minor issue. Kelvin Ng helped make Nunavut a better place to live. No one is indispensable, and everyone can be replaced. But after the next election, it will take a special person to fill the gap Ng’s departure will create. JB