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Should Canadian Senate adopt NWT-style government?
All Liberal senators released to sit as independents, NWT senator applauds shift to non-partisan system

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 3, 2014

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made an unprecedented move toward Senate reform Jan. 29 when he dismissed all party Senators from the Liberal caucus to sit as independents.

This included NWT Senator Nick Sibbeston, who applauded the decision.

"The consensus system works well in the Northwest Territories, why not the Senate, too?" he stated in a written release.

"I've always felt Ottawa was too partisan. Having a large number of independent senators should change the tenor of debate in the Chamber."

Trudeau's decision to dismiss Liberal senators was a means to achieve Senate reform without having to change the Canadian Constitution. He invited the Conservative and New Democratic parties to follow suit but neither party had made a move to do so by press time.

Yellowknife Centre MLA and capitol "L" Liberal Robert Hawkins also expressed support for the act.

"The success of consensus government stems from its ability to be responsive to the issues people face every day," he stated. "Canadians have come to realize that the current structure of the Senate does not allow for structural changes without amending the Constitution. The lack of accountability has rendered it a sinking ship."

The governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are unique in the Commonwealth in that they do not subscribe to a party system.

Each NWT MLA is elected independently and those 19 MLAs collectively select the premier, speaker and cabinet ministers.

"It's a perpetual minority government," said deputy clerk Doug Schauerte. "The cabinet, although they operate as a collective on most occasions, they still need to garner the support of at least three of those regular members at the end of the day."

The balance of power is held by the 11 regular MLAs, who could pass through any law they decided to band together on, and can make a motion do dismiss any minister or premier at any time. This is much different than the system used in the House of Commons where party leaders automatically assume the role of Prime Minister and the balance of power depends on the governing party of the day. Ottawa back benchers are also given very little opportunity to impact new laws.

Another major difference is that the NWT assembly can vote down motions brought forward by the government without causing a vote of non-confidence and triggering a new election, said Schauerte.

Without a party line to toe, NWT politicians - and now formerly-Liberal senators - can debate issues more freely.

"We find consensus works well for us because we have such a small community," said Schauerte. "The members are way more accessible to their constituents because of the nature of Northern life.

"It's also a reflection of aboriginal decision making style, where historically leaders would gather in villages to talk about issues and make decisions together."

Whether a consensus-style system would work in the Senate Chamber remains to be seen, but with the current state of the Senate, it couldn't hurt to try, said Hawkins.

"The public is tired of hearing about the lack of accountability within the Senate, which continues to be mired in scandal and political posturing," he wrote. "Reform in keeping with a consensus model would dissolve these barriers and bring traditional adversaries together to debate and review legislation based on merit alone.

"Opposing parties rarely stand together on substantive issues; this could create an environment for unparalleled co-operation."

Sibbeston could not be reached for comment.

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