At the time this article was
written Henry Zoe represented North Slave in the Northwest Territories
Legislative Assembly. This article is based on a presentation to the 18th Canadian
Regional Seminar in Ottawa in November 1994.
Many Canadians have a cynical
view of their governments' budget processes. Unless their MP or MLA is a
cabinet minister, they may not feel that their representative in Parliament or
their provincial legislature can have any significant input into the process.
It often seems to the public as if the budget is the product of faceless
bureaucrats and cabinet ministers. The government backbenchers' role is seen as
one of applauding at the right times during the budget speech, and not much
more. In the legislature of Canada's largest territory, the budget process
gives a greater role to individual parliamentarians. This article looks at some
of the unique features of the Northwest Territories legislature.
In the parliamentary sense, the
most notable difference is the lack of political parties in the NWT. After a
General Election, voters know who the 24 MLAs will be. But we have no idea who
will be in the Government. There is no "winning Party" from whom the
Government will be chosen. The "Government" side of the House is
decided through an election among the MLAs when they first meet after the
General Election. Eight cabinet ministers are chosen, including one chosen
separately who becomes the Premier.
Although, we do not have a formal
party structure, the cabinet essentially functions like a minority governing
party. Due to cabinet solidarity, there will be eight "yeas" for
every Government issue. But the cabinet then has to ensure that at least a few
"ordinary MLAs" are also on their side when any bill especially the
budget comes before the House.
But ordinary MLAs are not bound by
party lines, either. Their stands will vary with regional, cultural, and local
issues. The cabinet cannot count on a particular group of four to six ordinary
members to stand with them all the time. The practical result is what we call
"Consensus Government". The cabinet has to form a consensus among
most members on every important issue, since it is politically undesirable to
risk alienating some members by "converting" only a few to the
Government", we avoid much of the contention and discord often seen in
other legislatures. All members work together to arrive at a consensus on
different issues. Much of the work involved is done behind the scenes in
committee meetings, in caucus (which includes all 24 members), or in private
discussions among members.
The cabinet cannot
"force" a budget through the House, as is perceived to be the case in
legislatures with one political party having a majority of seats. Cabinet has
to curry the favour of most, and preferably all of the other members when
budget time rolls around.
This is done by including all MLAs
in the budgeting process quite early. This is especially true of the Capital
Budget, although consultation also occurs with the Operations and Maintenance
Budget. But the Capital Budget is perceived as having the greatest direct
impact on communities, so it is the target of more attention in some ways.
Typically, the Government
distributes the Capital Plan to communities and to MLAs about a year before
the beginning of the fiscal year in question. Communities are asked to describe
their priorities concerning capital projects. Perhaps they would rather see a
community hall built rather than a curling rink, for example. The MLAs are
included in this consultation process. They communicate with municipal
councils, local native organizations, regional associations, and individuals in
their constituencies. They may clarify things for their constituents or their
constituents may clarify things for them. So when the communities respond to
the Government in the summer, the MLAs have already had significant input.
The Departments spend the rest of the
summer preparing the Draft Capital Budget. This is then presented to the
Standing Committee on Finance in September. Seven of the 15 "ordinary
members" are on this Standing Committee, and any member can attend
Standing Committee Meetings. Here, the budget is examined in detail, both
in-camera and with the various cabinet ministers.
This year, the Standing Committee
chose to concentrate more on general issues, rather than on a line-by-line
examination of the Capital Plan. But individual members certainly still had
time to approach the cabinet informally with concerns and issues. Members also
consider specific issues in discussion in Committee of the Whole, which is
taking place now.
The cabinet has to listen to those
concerns. They know that if the budget does not meet most of the expectations
of individual members, the stand a good chance of being defeated. Cabinet
ministers make every effort either to meet the expectations of members, or to
provide them with adequate explanations concerning the priorities outlined by
The Operations and Maintenance
Budget is considered by the Standing Committee on Finance in January, and in
the House in February and March. While there is less formal community
consultation, the same principles of consensus and consideration apply. Even if
we someday abandon the consensus model and move to party politics, this kind of
detailed consultation would still continue. Although we are scattered over more
than 3 million square kilometers, we are still like a small town in many ways.
With instant communication across the North, through telephones, radio, and
television, we are indeed in the same situation as in a small town elsewhere in
Canada "everybody knows just about everything of just about
When an MLA sees a line for a
particular capital project in the budget, there is a good chance he knows who
will bid on the project and who will end up working on it. If it is in his
constituency, or a neighbouring area, he may even recognize by sight the
affected building or park or airport. The consultation process attached to the
budget is much more personal in the Northwest Territories than it is in a
province with millions of people. It would be impossible for individual
parliamentarians not to be closely involved with the process, whether we
continue with the consensus model or someday adopt political parties.
Now, this close involvement has its
own set of negative perceptions attached to it. Finance Committee Members may
suspect that ministers' ridings get more than their fair share in the budget.
Other members might suspect the same thing about the ridings of Finance
Committee Members. The personal nature of the process means that such
suspicions are to be expected. Is a contractor related to his MLA? Are they previous
business partners, or hunting buddies? When the average constituency has less
than 3,000 people, there is no escaping this kind of familiarity. Those who may
not be "on the inside" might have suspicions about the results of
We have other issues affecting the
process, too. Two important issues relate to the lack of economic
self-sufficiency we Northerners face. One is that 83 percent of the
government's budget comes from Ottawa. As a result, federal budget cuts and
restraint measures affect us far more than anyone else in the country.
Therefore, individual parliamentarians' control over the budget is limited, as
is the control of the cabinet itself, by the availability of funds from the
Federal Government. This has been most noticeable in the area of social
housing. The NWT needs over 3,000 new housing units to properly address the
housing needs of Northerners. Yet the Federal Government cut social housing
funding to the NWT from $47 million in 1991 to zero in 1994. The Territorial Government
does not have a sufficient revenue base to make up for those cuts. While a
recent Federal announcement will provide the NWT with $9 million in social
housing funding this year, that might be enough to build 60 or so houses; that
is, about 2 percent of the total need. Individual parliamentarians cannot do
much about that.
Second, Government Spending in the
NWT is a much more influential part of the Northern economy than is the case
elsewhere in the country. Government Spending accounts for 71 percent of
economic activity in the NWT. Proportionately, Government Spending decisions in
the North have a far greater effect on individuals than similar decisions in
the provinces. Therefore, individual Northerners have a much stronger
impression that they should be involved in the Government budgeting process.
Northern voters often have more detailed knowledge of Government Spending plans
than does the average Southern voter. And those interested voters are, of
course, much more likely to express their views to their MLAs.
In the Northwest Territories we
have some advantages and some disadvantages resulting from our
"smallness". But the consensus model of Government provides its own
advantages. By forcing the cabinet to rely on "ordinary members" for
continuing support in the House, we ensure that all members whether in
cabinet or not have an equal voice in guiding Government spending.