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Caroline Cochrane Elected New N.W.T. Premier Under Territory’s ‘Consensus’ System

In the Northwest Territories, MLAs choose who becomes the territory’s leader.
N.W.T. premier-elect Caroline Cochrane speaks in the legislature on Oct. 24, 2019.
Facebook/Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories
N.W.T. premier-elect Caroline Cochrane speaks in the legislature on Oct. 24, 2019.

The Northwest Territories will soon be led by the only female premier in the country.

Caroline Cochrane, a two-term member of the legislature, beat three other candidates after three rounds of secret-ballot votes in the legislature Thursday to win the top political job in the territory.

A former social worker of Metis descent, Cochrane previously served in various roles in the N.W.T. cabinet, including minister of education, culture and employment.

When she formally takes over Friday, Cochrane will also be the first woman to lead the N.W.T. since Nellie Cournoyea held the job in 1995.

Cochrane pledged to adopt an open-door policy and to lead from the heart.

Earlier: Northern premiers talk climate change, Arctic sovereignty at premiers conference

“We will make this next four years the most progressive government in the Northwest Territories,” she said after the results.

She will replace Bob McLeod, who has served as the N.W.T. premier since 2011 but did not run for re-election this year.

The territory and Nunavut are the only two jurisdictions in Canada that use a consensus form of government where members of the legislative assembly (MLA) directly choose who will serve as premier.

Here are some key things to know about how the consensus government system works and how Cochrane was ultimately chosen.

N.W.T. MLAs are not elected under a party banner

Nineteen members were elected to the territorial legislature on Oct. 1, including a record nine women. Eleven of the members had not served in the assembly before.

Since the territory does not have a system based on party politics, all candidates were elected as independents.

By comparison, in next door Yukon, Liberals have governed since 2016 after defeating the more right-wing Yukon Party government in a territorial election.

MLAs are all part of the same caucus

In the N.W.T., all MLAs are part of the same caucus. They gathered in the assembly about a week after the election, days before being formally sworn in, to share their priorities and goals for the group.

In speeches to the assembly in Yellowknife, members discussed the importance of improving health care services, transportation, and access to child care, as well as settling land claims, according to CBC News.

Those who wanted to be premier needed to step forward

MLAs interested in serving as premier had to make those intentions clear at a meeting of the territorial leadership committee on Oct. 18.

Cochrane, who represents Yellowknife’s Range Lake, and three other candidates — Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson, and Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos — delivered speeches of up to 20 minutes outlining their qualifications and platforms.

Cochrane trumpeted her experience holding seven portfolios over the last four years and pledged to develop a 10-year strategic economic plan and do more to fight climate change.

“I listened to all MLAs who spoke on the needs of their constituents,” she said. “I heard the need to consider the sustainability of the earth and the impacts of climate change, the need to consider the housing, health, and education wellness needs of our people and our communities, the need for addressing the economic crisis that the territory is facing, and the need to work together as we address these concerns.”

The candidates also answered questions from other members before embarking on a week of quiet campaigning and backroom discussions.

The Speaker, premier, and members of cabinet are elected by secret ballot

On Thursday, the MLAs gathered to choose a Speaker of the legislative assembly, the premier, and the six other members of the executive council, or cabinet, by a secret-ballot vote.

Frederick Blake Jr., the MLA for Mackenzie Delta, was acclaimed as Speaker.

The election of the premier came next so that those who were unsuccessful at becoming the territory’s leader could run for a cabinet position.

Candidates faced another round of questions from members before the vote. Cochrane used the occasion to pledge to work with all members, not just those in cabinet.

“The job of the premier is to bring together the members of the assembly,” she said.

MLAs then voted on which six members get to join cabinet. Simpson, who was unsuccessful in his bid for premier, made the cut with five others. Candidates hoping for a spot had to be nominated and needed to make speeches up to 10 minutes. According to convention, the cabinet consists of two members from Yellowknife, two from northern constituencies, and two from southern constituencies.

Though the process is meant to be secretive, Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, publicly revealed his picks for premier, Speaker, and cabinet in a release Wednesday.

Johnson said he made his choices public in the interest of transparency.

“We were presented with an overwhelming mandate for change this election. I believe step one in delivering that change is putting transparency into practice in our own decision-making,” he said.

But who picks cabinet roles?

While the MLAs choose who makes the executive council, it is the premier’s job to assign their portfolios in the days following the vote.

Wait, so there’s no opposition?

The eleven remaining MLAs who aren’t serving in cabinet or as Speaker are considered “regular” members and the de facto opposition. They are expected to hold the government to account over the next four years through questions in the legislature and work on standing committees.

According to an explainer on the government website, there is more communication between cabinet and regular members than in a traditional party system because “all legislation, major policies and proposed budgets pass through the Regular Members’ standing committees before coming to the House.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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