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Venting continues over empty cabinet seat

Nicole Veerman
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The silence from Yellowknife MLAs was deafening during last week's caucus meeting, where the legislative assembly voted to leave Sandy Lee's cabinet seat vacant, says one dissenting MLA.

"I was surprised as to how many Yellowknife MLAs thought it should be left open," said Robert Hawkins, MLA for Yellowknife Centre.

"I thought that was very disappointing.

"I think we should have exercised on the side of caution by filling it regardless.

"It's not a context of entitlement, but it's about fair representation and as far as I'm concerned what this does is create a democratic deficit that we wouldn't stand for anywhere else, I certainly wouldn't."

The cabinet seat became available two weeks ago when Sandy Lee, who is now running in the May 2 federal election as the Conservative candidate for the Western Arctic, stepped down as Range Lake MLA, minister of Health and Social Services, and minister responsible for seniors and for the status of women.

On April 7, a Territorial Leadership Committee meeting was scheduled to select an MLA to take Lee's seat. Tradition dictates her replacement would be another Yellowknife MLA but the meeting was cancelled after caucus decided not to fill the vacancy, citing the costs of selecting, swearing in and briefing a new minister as the reasons behind the decision.

Wendy Bisaro, MLA for Frame Lake and caucus chair, said Thursday that the cost of filling the seat includes paying for new letterhead, business cards and staff time required to bring ministers up-to-date on new portfolios.

"There were a lot of people that said the cost was the issue," said Hawkins. "But the cost is very minimal and most of them are already fixed anyway."

The cabinet seat will remain vacant until after the territorial election scheduled for Oct. 3.

Mayor Gord Van Tighem said six months with only one Yellowknife cabinet minister is too long.

"Decisions tend to be made in cabinet by cabinet and you're putting double duty on Bob McLeod as the sole remaining representative of the majority of the population of the Northwest Territories," he said of the Yellowknife South MLA.

The mayor said he's also concerned about the additional workload for the existing ministers.

Premier Floyd Roland will take ministerial responsibilities for the Status of Women, while Michael Miltenberger, the minister for the departments of Finance and Environment and Natural Resources, has assumed the role of minister of Health and Social Services and minister responsible for Seniors, the Homeless and Persons with Disabilities.

"These guys have three or four or five things in their portfolios and they're well informed on all of them and they're approachable and accessible. So if you start to increase on that workload, what's the quality that comes from that or the attention that goes to it?" asked Van Tighem.

"I do hope this isn't an indication of how things will be established after the next election."

Hawkins said now that the decision has been made, the issue won't be revisited.

David Ramsay, MLA for Kam Lake, said Yellowknife got the short end of the stick.

"There should be one more Yellowknife MLA keeping an eye on what's going on at that cabinet table and there's not."

Both Ramsay and Hawkins had expressed interest in the cabinet seat, along with Glen Abernethy, MLA for Great Slave.

Abernethy said he would have preferred to fill the seat, but in the end he supported the decision to leave it vacant.

"When you start factoring the costs and those types of things, obviously there's less of an argument (for filling the seat)," he said.

Yellowknife MLAs will be sure Bob McLeod is well aware of Yellowknife's position, Abernethy said.

"There's one good member on cabinet," he said. "And I guarantee that I'm going to be into the minister's office virtually every day.

"I don't stop going into those offices. I don't stop talking to the ministers and I know other members are doing the same thing," he said.

"We're on top of these guys."

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