When they’re mad at the premier


You can always tell when people in the northern territories are mad at their government — because that’s when they start demanding the direct election of a premier.

Such was the case when the three Nunavut regions sat within a united Northwest Territories, and such is the case in Nunavut today, where some municipal leaders and MLAs are exhuming the decayed corpse of a notion that expired years ago: the idea of a directly-elected territorial premier.

Iqaluit City Council passed a resolution not long ago in support of direct election for a premier, and it’s likely that Elisapee Sheutiapik, the mayor, will urge the Nunavut Association of Municipalities to follow suit.

At the legislative assembly’s recent leadership review, some MLAs woke up long enough to raise the same idea. One of those was Tagak Curley, a failed candidate for the premiership, who asked why the people of Nunavut can’t elect their premier, instead of MLAs.

That is not an unfair question. But it was asked, and answered, more than 10 years ago.

The Nunavut Implementation Commission — remember them? — discussed this in their 1995 blueprint for Nunavut’s government, Footprints in New Snow. They also studied the issue in detail, and published their findings in a widely-circulated supplementary report.

The NIC concluded that a system of direct election for the premier raised more questions than they were capable of answering.

For example: Would a directly-elected premier sit as an MLA in the assembly? If so, what constituency would he or she represent? Could a directly-elected premier, or his or her cabinet, be removed by a vote of confidence?

The last question is important — because if we were to get a premier who is directly elected by a majority of all voters, not MLAs, there would be little reason to let MLAs retain their power to remove that premier. Our current group of MLAs are an uninspired bunch, mostly. But in the future that won’t always be the case. In the future, we could actually end up with MLAs who take their jobs seriously. Do we really want to remove their power to make the premier accountable to the assembly?

The NIC concluded that a system of direct election for a premier would be extremely difficult to fit into the Westminster system of Parliamentary government that supplies the Nunavut legislature with most of its rules.

But for most ordinary people, this isn’t an abstract constitutional issue. When it arises, it’s because people aren’t happy with the sitting premier and his government. It’s an easy way to vent their frustration.

So it’s not hard to figure out why Iqaluit City Council now backs the idea of a directly elected premier. It’s because they’re furious with Premier Paul Okalik and his government for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which right now is the question of where to build a sea port in the South Baffin.

The City of Iqaluit put a lot of work last year into a proposal to build a small port at the end of the causeway.They’re not happy that the premier, who is also an Iqaluit MLA, does not back that lobbying work and seems content to let his government promote a dubious scheme for a port at Kimmirut connected to Iqaluit by road.

And as with most other Nunavut municipalities, there are numerous smaller irritants complicating the city’s relationship with the Government of Nunavut: infrastructure, funding, waste disposal — you name it.

Being a premier or cabinet minister can be a fun job when you’re popular. When you’re unpopular, your constituents will tear you apart like a pack of wolves feasting on a wounded caribou. Just ask any ex-premier or cabinet minister from the old days.

Of Iqaluit’s three MLAs, Okalik is already perceived as being less involved with Iqaluit constituents than the other two. This is not entirely fair. His job, for example, often takes him out of Iqaluit. And the premier must deal with all Nunavut communities in an even-handed manner.

But when the premier or cabinet minister is unpopular with the consituents in his own seat, he becomes especially vulnerable. Okalik would be well advised to heed the signs around him — especially if he plans to seek re-election as an MLA. JB

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