On October 5, 2017, the Legislative Assembly held a public mid-term review of Cabinet performance for the first time in twenty years on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. The only result of note was that Minister Louis Sebert received a vote of non-confidence from a majority of the nineteen Members of the Assembly.
I supported the idea of a mid-term review when it was initially proposed at the start of this Assembly. The election of a record number of new MLAs indicated that the public was anxious for change, and a mid-term review was a tool to help ensure that Cabinet didn’t fall back into the habit of ‘business as usual’. However, I soon realized that my support – the result of a lack of political experience – was misplaced. In our system of government, a mid-term review of Cabinet performance is wholly unnecessary. Regular Members publicly critique the performance of Ministers on a regular basis, and can remove a Minister at any time by a majority vote. History indicates that a removal motion can “deepen the normally healthy tension between Cabinet and Regular Members, and undermine future prospects for consensus” (Report on the Review of the Establishment of a Mid-Term Review Process, p 5), so should only be considered if absolutely necessary. A mid-term review could be said to pose the same risks. Effective consensus government is dependent upon good relationships, so undertakings that threaten to harden divisions between Members are ill-advised, and possibly reckless.
The process for the review, according to the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures, was predicated on the principles of accountability, adaptability, fairness, and transparency (Report, p 3). The Assembly has always had the tools to ensure accountability and fairness – as those are two of the hallmarks of consensus government – so an additional mechanism was unnecessary. Regular Members also had fairer ways to try to address ministerial performance that, unfortunately, we failed to utilize before resorting to public shaming. Finally, I question whether the final principle of transparency was actually honoured by this process. The Assembly’s view on the leadership and competence of each Minister is still unclear to me, so I assume it is also unclear to the Ministers and the public.
The mid-term review was an all-day affair. The event began at 9:00 a.m. with each Minister mounting a brief defence of his or her own leadership and achievements. These opening statements were virtually identical to many of the Minister’s Statements heard during regular sittings of the House. Next, every Regular Member was permitted to ask two questions to each Minister and the Premier. The questions, for the most part, were the familiar, issue-based questions posed during a regular question period and elicited similarly recognizable answers. After the questions were asked and answered, all nineteen Members – the Speaker, the Premier, the Ministers, and the Regular Members – cast secret ballots indicating whether or not they had confidence in the Premier, each Minister individually, and Cabinet as a whole. Confidence, or non-confidence, was determined by a simple majority. Vote totals were not made public, and are only known to a select few in the Office of the Clerk.
What would a vote of non-confidence mean? Procedurally, and in the eyes of Cabinet, nothing. A Minister who received a vote of non-confidence would not be removed from Cabinet, stripped of a portfolio, or be subject to any other formal effect. Cabinet dispelled any pretence that it regarded the vote as anything more than a symbolic gesture when, in response to a question, each Minister proclaimed that he or she would not resign in response to a vote of non-confidence. Later in the day, the Premier added that he would not take any action against a Minister who received such a vote. Every Member of Cabinet made it clear that if they were to be voted out, they wanted to know who was responsible. This united stance had three primary effects. The first was to negate the validity of eight votes: Cabinet’s and the Speaker’s. The Speaker was entitled to cast a secret ballot in the mid-term review, but may only vote on a revocation motion in the event of a tie. Customarily, tie breaking votes favour the status quo. A secret ballot allows a Minister to vote against a colleague who he or she feels is unfit for the position without fear of reprisal. However, barring extraordinary circumstances, a Minister would never publicly vote to remove a Minister. The second effect was to send the message to Regular Members that their opinions were not seen as valid by Cabinet. Finally, Cabinet’s response lowered the stakes for Members who thought that their vote would have real consequences. I believe that latter two effects were instrumental in determining the final result.
With at least some Regular Members undoubtedly feeling slighted, and knowing that a vote of non-confidence would do nothing more than send a message, all nineteen MLAs cast their ballots. When the votes were counted, only Minister Sebert – the Minister of the Department of Justice and the Department of Lands, and Minister Responsible for the Power Corporation – received a vote of non-confidence. What did the results reveal? All we know for sure is that Minister Sebert received at least ten votes of non-confidence, and at least one more than any other Minister. To the public, however, the results paint a skewed, unclear picture of how the Assembly views each Minister’s performance.
The review allowed for two diametrically opposed results: confidence and non-confidence. These options do not honour the principles of the review. It is unrealistic to think that Minister Sebert deserves a public shaming, while a Minister with one or two less votes of non-confidence can proudly proclaim that he or she enjoys the full confidence of the Assembly. However, the results essentially provide the Premier and five Ministers with carte blanche to continue business as usual, while Minister Sebert is left wondering about his future.
It is no secret that members have criticized Minister Sebert’s handling of many issues: closing the law library in Yellowknife and the legal aid office in Inuvik, ignoring public and MLA concerns about A New Day men’s healing program, removing the Power Corporation’s independent board of directors, land leases, and so on. However, Cabinet’s cost-cutting measures caused every Minister to make unpopular decisions, and there are other Ministers who have been chastised by the Regular Members more than Minister Sebert. In the end, the public is left to assume that Minister Sebert’s transgressions were qualitatively worse than those of any other Minister, for reasons that are unclear to everyone.
A more appropriate measure of performance than the thumbs-up or thumbs-down method we employed would be one that helps all Ministers understand if, and ideally how, their performance needs to improve. For example, a grading system would have conveyed much more information about each Minster’s perceived performance. This would have helped enlighten the public, as well as Cabinet.
As I mentioned earlier, effective consensus government is based on building relationships. Unlike a party system, the goal of the Regular Members in our system is not to usurp power from the government – in our case, Cabinet – but to work with the government for the betterment of the people. Part of that work is ensuring that Ministers govern appropriately, and we have mechanisms to try and achieve this. For example, Members of the previous Assembly had closed-door “fireside chats” with the Premier where Members could air grievances about Ministers. It is my understanding that the Premier would then work with the Minister to try to rectify the issues. Members of the previous Assembly, both Regular Members and Ministers, have assured me that this approach was effective for solving problems and improving relations. However, we have not utilized fireside chats in this Assembly. I regret not being a more vocal supporter of the calls for fireside chats. Had we engaged in them and Minister Sebert still received a vote of non-confidence then at least I would feel we had made our best efforts on behalf the residents of the NWT. It would have also afforded Minister Sebert the procedural fairness that he was owed.
Now that the dust from the mid-term review has settled, next steps are being considered. Some Members may want to work with Minister Sebert to address his perceived performance issues. Others may now see it as their duty to remove the Minister; some Members have publicly stated as much. Unlike Cabinet, there is no rule that mandates solidarity among the Regular Members, so each Member must make a personal decision based on a variety of factors. If a majority of Members wish to remove Minister Sebert, then I presume that a notice of motion will be given when the House sits again on Tuesday, October 17th. If notice is not given, that signals a decision by the Regular Members to work with the Minister to improve his performance, and to work with Cabinet to improve our relationship. Regardless, it is incumbent up on all nineteen members to ensure that the eventual outcome does not undermine the work we were elected to do on behalf of the people of the Northwest Territories.