Nunatsiaq Online
EDITORIAL: Nunavut March 12, 2014 - 8:04 am

Did the MLA for Uqqummiut get due process?

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

Samuel Nuqingaq, the beleaguered MLA for Uqqummiut, does not likely inspire much public sympathy these days.

Even before he took his oath of office this past fall, he got into trouble with his peers. He missed two days of orientation and slept through the morning segment of their Nov. 15 premier-cabinet election forum.

In response, the internal body that MLAs use to govern themselves, the management and services board, docked the errant member’s pay. Not a good way to start a new job — especially when public service lies at the heart of your job description.

Who does he think he is? A senator? Whatever he did to put himself where he is now, the member for Uqqummiut is now a sitting duck — an easy target for careless ridicule and abuse.

But does this give Nuqingaq’s fellow MLAs a licence to impose any arbitrary penalty they wish?

No, it doesn’t. Nuqingaq, no matter what he is alleged to have done, should receive the benefit of due process. So should his constituents, who elected him less than four months ago.

They have the right to know why MLAs deprived them of any representation during the current sitting of the legislative assembly — and possibly longer.

So far, MLAs have failed on both counts.

On March 7, they passed a motion that imposes a big expensive penalty on Nuqingaq and his constituents. Two members, Paul Okalik and George Hickes Jr., voted against it.

The motion states that the member for Uqqummiut is suspended for the entire spring sitting of the assembly, a ban that includes all caucus and committee meetings. They asked the management board to dock his pay.

And MLAs went further. They gave themselves the ability to overturn a legal election result.

That’s the only way to interpret their March 6 motion. By March 22, the assembly may make “a determination as to whether it should extend the suspension, end the suspension, or take other action. (The italics are ours.)

To justify this, MLAs have provided the public with no credible information. Their motion states only that the management board disciplined Nuqingaq “on previous occasions for his unacceptable conduct.” But they didn’t state why they are disciplining him now.

And what was the “unacceptable conduct?” MLAs won’t say.

Has Nuqingaq been charged with a criminal offence? No. His name does not appear on any criminal docket. Did Nuqingaq take a bribe? No. There’s no evidence of that whatsoever. Did he file a false expense claim? No, he didn’t. Did he lie to the house? No. He has yet to speak in the house. Did he threaten another member? No. There’s no evidence of that either.

The only facts available to the public are about certain things that Nuqingaq did a few days before he legally became an MLA.

That includes two days of absences from the assembly’s how-to-be-an-MLA training course last fall, a process the public doesn’t see and doesn’t likely care much about.

The most serious transgression was a half-day absence from the televised leadership forum of Nov. 15, a process the public does care about.

But does that justify the possible overturning of an election result? MLAs did not debate the March 6 suspension motion in public. They did discuss the issue at a caucus meeting held the previous evening, March 5, behind closed doors, in secret.

That’s unacceptable. If they believe Nuqingaq did something to warrant a suspension, they must provide the public with their evidence. Coffee shop rumour is not a valid justification for actions that could lead to the overturning of a legal election result.

Was it public drunkenness? Was it something else? An overnight stay at the police station? If those allegations are true, MLAs should say so, in public. If they’re not true, MLAs should make that clear also.

The Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act gives MLAs the ability to discipline their peers. But without public scrutiny, that sweeping power will always be subject to abuse. 

What if, in the future, an MLA were to take a highly unpopular position on an issue? Right now, MLAs could hold a behind-closed-doors caucus meeting, decide on a suspension or expulsion, and pass such a motion with no public debate.

MLAs said March 6 that they took their suspension decision to preserve the “dignity and reputation of the institution.” On that point, there’s no doubt a member’s public behaviour could potentially hurt the reputation of the legislative assembly.

But over time, secrecy, arbitrary decision-making and the absence of due process will do far more damage. JB

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