Nunatsiaq Online
COMMENTARY: Nunavut May 20, 2016 - 2:30 pm

Where do voters turn when leaders fail to lead?

Land sales vote suffered from lack of information, political guidance

THOMAS ROHNER

The recent land referendum in Nunavut was a failure of the territory’s political leadership on all levels.

Simply put, leaders failed to lead.

Instead, they claimed to be neutral, and cloaked themselves as bureaucrats.

The difference between a political leader and a bureaucrat is crucial — without that difference, a society can only pay lip-service to the idea of democracy.

And the difference between the two is simple: the opinions of a bureaucrat should have no bearing on the duties of his or her job.

But the opinions of a leader — his or her values or beliefs as communicated to the public — are what get that leader elected.

Put another way, bureaucrats are expected to be neutral in carrying out their job: a cog in the administrative machinery. Personal opinions get in the way of that machinery running efficiently.

But an elected leader reflects the values of society and advocates for those values to guide society’s vision of itself. Elected leaders are the human beings at the levers of the bureaucratic machinery.

At least that’s the theory. Sadly, Nunavut leaders refused to wade into the discussion, defend any values or, therefore, guide society.

Leading up to the vote on whether to allow municipalities the option of selling off land, the Government of Nunavut’s official message was: We have no opinion on the actual vote.

The GN decided that all media interview requests on the vote would be directed to the Department of Community and Government Services, which administered the vote.

Members of the public pounced on CGS for providing too little information, answering too few questions.

Sure, CGS should have done a lot more research to present to the public. For example, a deputy minister of the department said no research was done into the transfer of a commodity from the public to private domain in other jurisdictions.

But it wasn’t up to CGS to define the scope of their involvement in the referendum — CGS staffers are just part of a bureaucracy and carry out the government’s mandate.

It’s the elected government leaders whose responsibility it is to ask questions like: what do voters need to know? What’s important to voters? What’s this vote really about? How do Nunavut citizens want their society to look down the road, and how will this vote impact that vision?

Those are the kinds of questions that only people can ask, not bureaucracies, and the kinds of questions that should be asked, internally and publicly, by any elected leader.

If elected leaders had asked those questions, voters would have been more engaged and educated on the vote. Competing views would have been aired publicly — crucial to an informed democratic vote.

Instead, elected leaders maintained their silence or neutrality. They failed to contribute to the public debate on the topic, let alone lead that public debate. 

In Nunavut’s consensus-style government, MLAs promoted to ministers already have limited ability to advocate on behalf of their constituents.

For example, ministers cannot criticize or ask questions of the government in the legislature — they only answer questions posed by regular MLAs.

But regular MLAs and even municipally-elected leaders were also absent from the public debate leading up to the referendum.  We don’t know why.

Were elected leaders hedging their bets, not willing to offend any part of their voter-base for fear of losing the next election? Are leaders falling in line behind bureaucrats in the culture of fear that permeates the public service?

Nunavut’s Inuit land claim organization did eventually wade into the debate, supporting a “no” vote. But why did Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. wait so long before making its position known? NTI knew of the vote-date more than a year in advance. Again, we don’t know why.

Nunavummiut took matters into their own hands by delivering a resounding “no” vote. But how many of those votes were really, “I don’t know?” And with voter turn-out appallingly low in most communities, how many citizens didn’t vote out of confusion-induced apathy?

Some members of the public filled the leadership void created by elected politicians: ordinary citizens wrote letters to the editor of Nunatsiaq New and a social media campaign sprung up supporting a “no” vote.

Qanak, a group of Inuk professionals in Iqaluit, spearheaded that campaign by doing what elected leaders did not: they defended a clear opinion with historical context, social values and optimism.

Inuit’s relationship with land is fundamentally different than in other Canadian jurisdictions, they argued.

Economic development could happen without selling municipal lands, they argued.

Whether you agree or disagree with Qanak’s position, they at least saw fit to defend the values of Inuit society, as they see those values, and to assert Inuit society as an equal to Canadian or western society.

That’s more than can be said for Nunavut’s elected leaders.

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