Nunavut’s consensus system? It doesn’t exist.
"We do not use a consensus system. We do use a non-partisan system."
Get ready. Early next week, on Sept. 23, the campaign period starts for the 22 constituency elections that, on Oct. 28, will decide who will sit in Nunavut’s fourth legislative assembly.
And after those members take their seats they’ll likely repeat to themselves and to others one of northern Canada’s longest-lived fictions: that the Nunavut legislature uses something called “consensus” to make decisions.
Consensus means unanimous or near-unanimous agreement. You get consensus when everyone — or nearly everyone —says yes to a proposal. Under a true consensus system, there is no decision without such agreement.
Here’s a simple example. The eight member states of the Arctic Council use a pure form of consensus to reach agreement on policy declarations and treaties. Each of the eight must agree. If even one member objects, there is no consensus, and therefore, no decision.
That’s not how the Nunavut legislature operates, in spirit or in practice.
Nunavut’s legislative assembly, along with its older parent, the Northwest Territories legislative assembly, makes decisions the old-fashioned way: by majority vote.
Granted, on matters that aren’t controversial for them, votes among MLAs are usually unanimous. They achieved pure consensus on Bill 67, which amended the Integrity Act to bar numerous public servants from complaining about the ethical conduct of MLAs. In that case, MLAs, especially the ethically dodgy members, were motivated by grubby self-interest and voted with one mind.
But on the big social and political issues that divide MLAs — and their constituents — consensus is non-existent.
Here’s one example: the passage of the Nunavut Human Rights Act in November 2003. That bill squeaked through the assembly by a margin of 10 votes to eight. That new law did win a narrow majority. But MLAs did not reach consensus on it.
Here’s another example: a vote this past March 4 to stall Bill 40, the Representative for Children and Youth Act. That motion passed by the narrowest of margins: nine votes to eight, with the speaker casting the tie-breaker.
That’s not consensus either. If MLAs were to use an actual consensus method for deciding the fate of Bill 40, the new law would have ended up in the nearest trash can months ago. That’s because it’s evident that even near-unanimity on the bill — and any semblance of consensus — is non-existent.
In any case, why should MLAs always think with one mind? In the two examples above, MLAs demonstrated that the people of Nunavut are no different than people elsewhere in the world — they disagree on numerous fundamental issues.
The fault lines that divide Nunavummiut are many: traditionalists versus modernists, social conservatives versus social liberals, mining advocates versus advocates for the environment, young versus old, as well as the schisms and rivalries that sometimes pit regions and communities against one another.
All this is healthy. Unanimity is the handmaiden of authoritarianism. Where unanimity exists, it’s usually through coercion.
So it’s natural that such divisions should manifest themselves within the Nunavut legislative assembly. It should surprise no one that a big piece of social legislation like Bill 40 sparks honestly-held opinions on either side of the issue. In the end Bill 40 did pass, not through a consensus process but by a majority vote.
The most accurate term, perhaps, to describe a legislature in which members are elected as independents, with no affiliation to a territorial-wide political party, is “non-partisan.”
We do not use a consensus system. We do use a non-partisan system.
And it’s likely that this non-partisan system will survive for many years. The formation of territorial political parties in Nunavut may one day occur, but not likely until the distant future.
Why? Money. Nunavut’s tiny population of about 34,000 and Nunavut’s large proportion of low-income people offers a thin base from which to raise funds for two or three territorial-wide political parties.
A functioning territorial political party would need an executive director, office space, a website, administrative help and researchers. That means a budget, at minimum, of between $150,000 to $200,000 a year. And in an election year, financing a territorial-wide campaign across 22 constituencies would require even more money.
Where will the donations come from in Nunavut? Get used to it. The non-partisan system used in the Nunavut and Northwest Territories legislatures is here to stay.
But please, stop using the word “consensus” to name the system that now prevails within the legislatures of Nunavut and the NWT. The term’s a mushy-headed remnant of the 1970s, a dishonest fiction that conceals the truth. It’s time to bury it.JB