Making a party
Political veteran looking to change face of government in NWT

by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 11/97) - Consensus government will be a thing of the past and the sooner the better, says a veteran of politics who's running for the Western Arctic seat in the next federal election.

Wally Firth (left) says the North is ready for party politics, the system of government now in place in every province and Yukon, but not the NWT.

The party system makes MLAs more accountable than consensus government, said Firth, and gives voters a better idea of the policies their votes support when they head to the polls.

To pave the way to territorial party politics, Firth is trying to establish the NWT's first political party, the Northern Party.

"It should be in place, with a leader, a slate of candidates and policies in time for the next election - that's the goal," said the Fort McPherson resident.

The next territorial election will occur some time before April 1, 1999, the date of division. Should it come into being, the party will campaign for seats in the new western government.

And the best place to work toward that goal is Ottawa, said Firth. The NDP courted him as a candidate for the western territory for the election, but Firth has chosen to run as an independent, saying it will allow him to focus on the changes he hopes to bring to the territorial legislature.

His ability to bring about change was demonstrated in his last term in federal politics. He is the last person to represent the entire NWT in the House of Commons. He served as a member of the NDP party from 1972 to 1979, successfully lobbying for a second seat for the NWT in Parliament.

Though he's kept busy as a commercial pilot and flight instructor, retirement hasn't been easy.

"I read in the papers and see on TV what's going on, and I know things could be better," said Firth. "I'd like to see things better."

Firth said his first impulse was to let things sort themselves out. He said he firmly believes party politics will evolve from the present system.

"I thought I'd just ignore it and go to my cabin and do some fishing. But I found I couldn't ignore it. People have a responsibility to do what they know is right."

So what's wrong with consensus government?

"The NWT legislature should be fully elected, and the public would be better served than it is now if we had introduced party politics," said Firth.

He noted that under the current system members elect the premier and cabinet. "Right now you have very little accountability. Once someone's elected to the legislature, that's it -- he, or she, is on their own for the next four years.

"During elections, people don't know what they're voting for -- when you vote, you know what that person's opinions are, but you don't know if those opinions will be policy or not."

Under the party system, members and delegates establish party policy before the election. Delegates also nominate and elect candidates and a party leader. Firth described the selection process as an additional "test" that candidates would have to go through to get into office, one that would benefit the public.

"It's a way of becoming a little more sophisticated politically," said Firth of the move toward party politics.

Firth added that the term "consensus" is an inaccurate description of the current system, noting all decisions are made by a vote, not unanimous agreement.