Nunavut is one of two jurisdictions in Canada (the other being
the Northwest Territories) where there are no political parties in the
legislature. This article argues that consensus government is a northern
variation of the standard Westminster model of responsible government. It
describes the theory and practice of consensus government in Canada’s newest
of consensus government are the same as in a legislature with political
parties. We have a Premier, cabinet and private members; three readings
for a bill, Hansard, question period, a politically neutral Speaker, motions of
non- confidence and so on. Moreover, in terms of constitutional fundamentals,
we follow the principles of the British parliamentary model of “responsible
The government – premier and cabinet – hold and retain power by
maintaining the “confidence” of the House, which in practice means winning the
votes in which confidence is explicitly at issue.
Once Cabinet reaches a decision, all ministers must publicly
support that decision, whatever their personal reservations and whatever
arguments they may have made behind closed cabinet doors. The principle of
“cabinet solidarity” must remain
The spending of public money and the raising of public revenue
through taxation may only be initiated by cabinet ministers; regular members
certainly have the power to approve or reject such measures when they come
before the legislature but bringing them forward remains a cabinet prerogative.
Similarly, control and direction of the permanent bureaucracy rests firmly in
Ministers, both as political heads of individual departments and
as members of a unified cabinet, are answerable to the legislature for the
policies and decisions of government; this enables the public service to
operate in a non-partisan fashion whereby bureaucrats answer to MLAs through
People often wonder how we can truly have a parliament on the
British responsible government model without political parties. Others presume
that the absence of parties is simply a sign of our lack of political
“maturity” and that once we have reached the proper stage of political
development we will acquire parties. I note in passing that no one ever
describes Nebraska as politically immature, although its legislature has long
operated on a nonpartisan basis.
Political parties may indeed emerge in Nunavut somewhere down
the road, but for the time being our residents think the system works fine
without them. Our vision of political maturity is one of controlling our own
affairs and does not necessarily require political parties.
As for the view that a proper Westminster system includes
parties, I would point out that the key principles of responsible government I
have just outlined were firmly in place in Britain and Canada well before the
disciplined political parties we know today emerged in the mid and late 19th century.
However while the underlying constitutional principles are
identical to those in Westminster-style parliaments in Canada and elsewhere,
the way we put them into practice is quite different.
Consensus Government in Operation
Southerners observing our legislature immediately notice two
things. First, much of our proceedings take place in Inuktitut. Second, debate
is civil. MLAs listen to each other and do not often interrupt.
Nunavut MLAs, like politicians everywhere, get angry,
upset and critical, but for the most part our proceedings are calm and
respectful. Like the frequent use of Inuktitut, this reflects Inuit culture, in
which direct confrontation is to be avoided and one listens attentively –
and does not interrupt – when another is speaking.
Heated political battles occur behind the scenes but the norms
of civility and respect are powerful. They certainly make the Speaker’s job
easier in maintaining order in the House.
All candidates for territorial election, including MLAs and
ministers standing for re-election, run as independents. Some have strong and
widely known connections to the national political parties. But while these
affiliations likely have some bearing on candidates’ attractiveness to voters,
we all run – and are judged by the voters – on the basis of our personal views
In the House, while there are certainly groupings and alliances
among MLAs, there are no hard and fast lines, enforced by strong party discipline,
dividing MLAs, as in the South. Nor, as I will explain in a moment, is there a
Regular members speak and vote in the House as they think best.
Ministers typically speak and vote in unison, in keeping with the principle of
cabinet solidarity, but on matters not directly linked to government policy,
they too speak and act independently.
Central to consensus government is the way we choose our
cabinet, including the Premier: This is done by secret ballot of all MLAs.
Thus unlike Southern Canadian parliaments, where ministers owe their
appointments directly to the Premier, Nunavut ministers understand that they
were put in office by the MLAs, not the Premier and that they can be removed
from office by the MLAs.
The premier assigns ministers to portfolios and also shuffles
their assignments, but he does not have the power to dismiss them, as a recent
episode demonstrated. In a conflict over a minister’s refusal to abide by
cabinet solidarity, the Premier was able to discipline the minister by removing
his departmental responsibilities, but could not remove him from cabinet.
Some have compared our consensus government to a permanent
minority government, for the regular MLAs outnumber the cabinet eleven to
seven. There is some truth to that view but in other ways it is misleading.
Obviously, the regular MLAs can defeat the government in a vote at any time,
either on a specific policy issue or on a question of confidence. This means
that – as is the case with minority governments – cabinet has to ensure that it
has the voting support of some MLAs and this in turn makes cabinet sensitive to
the views of the Legislative Assembly. In keeping with British
parliamentary tradition, the Speaker only votes to break a tie.
Since we do not have parties regular members work together and
support one another, but are not a formal opposition along the lines of those
found in southern parliaments: a disciplined group of members, prepared to –
indeed eager to – replace the government. The other characteristic of
oppositions that is mostly absent in our House is their relentless
fault-finding and finger-pointing and their objection to everything government
does. Even when they really agree with government they will usually not admit
it and find something to criticise.
Nunavut MLAs certainly are not shy about voicing criticism
of the cabinet, but they do not criticise and oppose just for the sake of
criticism and opposition.
Our Legislative Assembly simply is not as adversarial as party-dominated
Houses. An important institution which helps all MLAs work together is caucus.
This is a term familiar to all Canadian parliamentarians, but again its meaning
and significance in Nunavut is rather unusual. In most other Canadian legislatures,
each party has its own caucus and only members of that party participate. Here
in Nunavut all nineteen MLAs – including the Speaker – attend and participate
Caucus meets regularly – at least once a week when the House is
sitting and occasionally when the Assembly is not sitting – to discuss
political issues. As in the south, caucus meetings are not open to the public
and caucus confidentiality is an important unwritten rule.
In caucus we are all aware that the Premier is the Premier and
the ministers are ministers, but at the same time everyone’s views are taken
seriously and there is genuine give and take among all MLAs. As one MLA has put
it: “there is no such thing as ministers ... everyone is equal when it comes to
feeling free to speak”.
Some questions can be decided in caucus, which may mean that
debate in the House is limited, while on others agreement will not be reached
and the discussions will continue in the House and in committees.
I do not want to leave the impression that caucus is the real
decision-making body and that it dictates to cabinet. It does not , but the
discussions in caucus make it clear where everyone stands and facilitate
compromises and problem-solving.
More traditional in form are our legislative committees, though
here again, their capacity to influence government decisions is greater than in
other Westminster parliaments. Because our House is so small and ministers do
not normally serve on committees, we do not have many committees, but the ones
we have are quite active.
In addition to two committees which deal with internal matters
and the occasional special committee, we have four standing committees dealing
with government policy and administration:
- Health and Education
- Government Operations and Services
- Community Empowerment and Sustainable Development and
- Ajauqtiit (Land Claims issues)
These committees have wide-ranging terms of reference which
include oversight of specific government departments, including their spending
estimates, legislation and special policy reviews. Government Operations also
performs the functions of a public accounts committee.
In addition to its mandate to overseeing the department with a
special mandate for protecting and enhancing Inuit culture, the Department of
Culture, Elders and Youth, the Standing Committee Ajauqtiit – which roughly
means “those who push forward” in Inuktitut – has special responsibility for
issues arising from the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement as well as for the unique
boards and institutions established under the claim.
As is the case in other Canadian parliaments, much of the
Assembly’s important business is carried out in these committees. A good deal
of the committees’ detailed work would be familiar to any Canadian
parliamentarian. Again, however, there are distinctive twists to the operation
and influence of our committees.
First, they are routinely provided by cabinet with confidential
information that committees in Ottawa and the provincial capitals could only
dream of receiving. This includes draft government legislation, departments’
draft expenditure budgets and other confidential documents. Cabinet does not
share everything with the committees, but the practice of providing MLAs with
important policy documents before they are finalized and made public offers
cabinet an opportunity to determine and respond to MLA input and gives MLAs
genuine influence – though by no means the final say – in important government
A strength of our committee system lies in its capacity to
foster a positive and cooperative relationship between cabinet and regular
members to provide the best government possible for our constituents.
This should not be taken to mean that the committees are tame or
somehow in the cabinet’s pocket. Indeed, since cabinet cannot control the
legislative committees, as it usually does in party-dominated parliaments, they
can and do act independently when they see the need.
Take a look at some of the hard-hitting committee reports posted
on the Assembly’s web site and you will see that committees do not hesitate to
voice strong criticism of government when they perceive policy and
administrative failings. The standing committees have the power to make cabinet
do what they want.
Through the Ajauqtiit Committee, regular MLAs play a central
role in recruiting and reviewing candidates for the Assembly’s independent
offices – the Clerk, the Integrity Commissioner, the Languages Commissioner,
the Chief Electoral Office and the Information and Privacy Commissioner. Once
Ajauqtiit has made a recommendation, the appointment is made on the basis of a
vote in the Assembly.
Two other distinctive features of the Nunavut Assembly bear
mention. First, we take seriously our commitment to remain close to the people
by regularly holding legislative sessions outside Iqaluit, the capital. In
other parts of Canada legislative committee hearings and caucus retreats may
take place in communities beyond the parliamentary grounds but the House sits
only in the legislative chamber.
We also encourage our committees to travel across Nunavut and
regularly hold Caucus meetings throughout the territory, but we go a step
further. Every year we pack up the entire Assembly – MLAs, clerks, interpreters
and other staff – and hold a session in a community outside Iqaluit. This past June
we held a session in Baker Lake. It is expensive, though there are important
economic benefits to the host community, but we think it is important to
maintain a close connection with the people of Nunavut and, quite literally,
bring their government to them.
Evaluating Consensus Government
I have argued that consensus government, Nunavut-style, is
different and distinctive. But does it really work? I suspect that each MLA
would give you a different answer to that question. Overall, my view is that it
does work, although it is certainly not without problems.
Let us begin by recognizing that no political system is perfect;
all have strengths and weaknesses. There is no question that consensus
government offers private members much greater opportunity for real clout than
they could have in a party system.
They have, and are prepared to use, the power to choose and
dismiss ministers, including the Premier. Both in committees and in the House,
they have the weight of numbers to enforce their will on cabinet. In the words
of one of the regular members, “together we have just as much power as cabinet
if we stick together.”
But consensus government is not just about who has power. The
institution of caucus, the absence of parties and party discipline and indeed the
whole spirit of consensus government all work toward a political environment
where ministers can work closely and cooperatively with regular MLAs.
Just so I do not give you an overly romantic notion of the
wonders of consensus government, let me paint you a fuller picture. Some
observers say that under consensus government MLAs do have the opportunity to
influence government and its policies but that they fail to make good use of
their opportunities: too often they are disorganized or they are unwilling or
unable to take on ministers.
For their part, some MLAs say that ministers talk a good line
about cooperation and consensus but only go through the motions of taking
regular members seriously. Some would say the government has a long way
to go in involving MLAs and communities properly in major policy decisions.
Views of MLAs about the value of caucus also differ a good deal.
While everyone agrees that it is a meeting of equals, not everyone agrees that
“discussions in caucus can be helpful in resolving issues”. Some members
dismiss caucus as “a waste of time” arguing that few decisions are actually
MLAs constantly complain that the cabinet has failed to consult
them adequately, that ministers pay more attention to their bureaucrats than to
the elected MLAs, that ministers are often unwilling to share critical
information with MLAs, that cabinet is less interested in developing a genuine
consensus among all MLAs than in playing “divide and conquer” political games.
On the one hand, you have ministers who say all the information
cabinet has, the MLAs get, while regular members voice disappointment that the
information they get can be incomplete and slow in coming. Some MLAs claim that
our system has nothing in common with traditional Inuit consensus decision
making, that it represents a rejection rather than an affirmation of Inuit
culture and values. More than one MLA has referred to the procedures of the
parliamentary system as “alien”.
Consensus government has both notable strengths and weaknesses
when it comes to accountability. In our system, cabinet is more directly and
genuinely accountable to the elected MLAs than is usually the case in
Westminster parliaments. However voters cannot choose between competing sets of
policies, as can voters in party systems. For the most part they do not even
know who is likely to be in cabinet, and even if they did, they have almost no
way of influencing that process. Then, come election time, voters are largely
unable to register their approval or disapproval of the government’s record,
because the choice before them is who to pick as MLA, not (again, as in party
systems) whether to cast their ballot to re-elect or defeat the government.
In Nunavut, the interest in moving to a party system has not
been strong to date, but a very different idea for strengthening the
accountability of the government to the people has surfaced in the past:
electing the Premier in a territory-wide election. It would not surprise me if
this idea came up again during our next election period.
Revamping our system by directly electing the Premier – which as
you can imagine, would bring about fundamental changes – has also been proposed
as a way of dealing with what some critics see as another serious weakness of
consensus government. Some contend that without the discipline brought by a
powerful Premier, who hires and fires ministers, and with cabinet constantly
needing to curry political favour with MLAs because of its minority position,
cabinet is left in a weak position.
Under consensus government, they suggest, cabinet lacks
coherence and consistency, with ministers too often going off in separate
directions. Moreover, the criticism runs, cabinet may be reluctant to make the
tough decisions on big contentious issues that government sometimes needs to
As Speaker of the Assembly, I keep my opinions on the various
assessments of consensus government, pro and con, to myself. However, I would
like to leave you with one thought about the relevance of consensus
government, Nunavut-style to the more conventional parliaments in Canada.
Whether consensus government appeals to you or not, whether you
side with its critics or its supporters, I think you will agree that its
processes, its culture, its institutional forms are different. And yet
to repeat a central point I made at the outset, this is a system firmly
located within the traditions and principles of Westminster-style parliamentary
The important lesson to be drawn is that responsible
parliamentary government is not the inflexible, hidebound system its critics
sometimes make it out to be. It is highly adaptable and many different
organizational forms and political processes are perfectly compatible with its
No one is about to propose copying Nunavut’s consensus
government system in southern Canada. This is unrealistic for any number of
obvious reasons. Rather, the message that consensus government holds for
southern Canadians is that there is no single definitive model of responsible parliamentary
government – many variations are possible.
The genius of the Westminster system lies in its adaptability to
a wide range of political circumstances and cultural contexts — we in the North
have adapted it to our unique needs and situations.