Consensus Government

Between 3 October and 7 November 2011, there will be 5 provincial and 2 territorial elections in Canada. Voters in the provinces of Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan, as well as Yukon and the Northwest Territories will all be headed to the polls.

What some may not know is that voters in the Northwest Territories don’t have political parties to compare and choose between.

Until 1978, Members of the legislatures of the territories were individuals who are not members of a party, but are elected as independents by the people in their constituency or riding. In 1978, the Yukon organised political parties and now elects members the same way provinces do. However, consensus government is still used in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut.

Soon after a general election, the Members elect, from amongst themselves, one Member to fill the position of Speaker and another to be Premier. (The title was formerly Government Leader). They also choose other Members to be Executive Council Members, also called Cabinet Ministers. The absence of party structures allows each Member to vote as he or she wished on any subject matter. Approval of any decision requires agreement by the majority of Members. This is called consensus government.

The consensus system of governing is more in keeping with the way that aboriginal peoples have traditionally made decisions. Unanimous agreement is not necessary for decisions to be made, motions passed, and legislation enacted. A simple majority carries the vote.

Members, who are not in Cabinet are referred to as Regular Members. They become the unofficial opposition in the House. They are responsible, through questioning and through standing committees, for holding the Government accountable and responsive to the people.

As there are significantly more regular members than members of the cabinet, they exert considerable influence on many of the decisions and the direction of the Government, far more so than the Official Opposition does in the party-based system used in the provinces and at the federal level.

While there are no laws prohibiting territorial political parties in either Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, no parties have successfully contested a territorial election in these two jurisdictions.

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