Cochrane’s ultimatum to MLAs: Fund new agency or ‘take me out’
The Dysfunctional Diorama known as the NWT Legislative Assembly re-grouped on Thursday, and by the end of Friday’s question period, Premier Caroline Cochrane threw her arms up in frustration and dared the MLAs to oust her.
Perhaps Cochrane was upset the regular MLAs in our unofficial opposition didn’t accept her many apologies for screw-ups associated with the fast-tracked creation of an $87-million agency to handle all things COVID-19, as many other stated priorities of the group remain in limbo.
“If that is the reason that they will say, ‘Take her out,’ then take me out because health and safety is priority,” a clearly perturbed Cochrane said at the end of oral questions on Day 36 of the second session of the NWT’s 19th Assembly.
“I have an obligation as the premier of the Northwest Territories to make sure that the health and safety of our residents comes first, and I will hold that to my end.”
Cochrane had been challenged by Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty over the need for, and the expense of, the COVID-19 Coordinating Secretariat, announced on Sept. 3. The new 150-person agency, designed to pull together COVID-19-related supports and resources from multiple departments, has been the target of intense public criticism.
Several MLAs raised concerns over the two days kicking off the 14-day fall schedule, but the most pointed questioning came from Lafferty, the last Assembly’s speaker.
“I did not hear any support from the general public or Aboriginal governments to create an $87-million bureaucracy — $87 million that could be better well spent in housing, lack of teachers, special needs, all those issues at the community level, a real issue,” he said. “It boggles me that we are creating this ‘Taj Mahal’ bureaucracy. It’s unthinkable.”
Lafferty also asked Cochrane, to “please list other options that she considered before deciding on the costly expansion of our government to form another bureaucracy,” and suggested the new agency “promises no improvement at vastly increased expense” over the original response drawn from existing resources across several departments.
Cochrane said the goal was to relieve staff working overtime in some departments and also to answer concerns raised by residents, municipal and Indigenous governments, and the business sector. GNWT information states that 163 full and part-time employees have been working on the ‘Rona response, most of them redeployed from other areas of government. The federal government will contribute $23.4 million to the new agency, with the GNWT on the hook for the rest. It will be running for up to 2.5 years.
Cochrane first started talking about a specialized Covid-19 unit in July, but its announcement came without the usual consultation process and caught many MLAs by surprise when announced at a committee meeting last month.
“The COVID secretariat was not something that just came up and we said we are going to have a new agency because would have nothing better to do,” the premier told the Assembly. “It came out of trying to do the best we could. I know that I heard that we did not talk about MLAs, we did not talk to the Indigenous governments.
“The secretariat is not something that came up because it was something to do. We have not even had time to think of things to do. We have just been go, go, go.”
Cochrane recalled for MLAs when she attended some meetings with a minister and municipal governments over the summer.
“Every meeting we went to … they said, ‘Provide more. We are scared. Please help us. We want firmer, more border controls. We want more isolation. We do not want them in our communities. We need to have PPE. We are scared. Tell us what to do. Give us a connection.’
“At the same time … businesses were saying, ‘Open up the GNWT.” We had pressure that was saying, ‘Use your resources. Keep the borders controlled. Keep the isolation,’ but, ‘Get back to business.’
“We can’t do both, so we make a choice.”
That choice will come this session, as the budget for the secretariat will have to be approved by MLAs — a cart-before-the-horse gambit by the premier.
On Friday, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson slammed money going to the virus-fighting agency as other crucial programs remain wanting. That includes battling addictions, which is a serious health and safety threat across the NWT.
“This government is providing some financial resources to address addictions, but knowing that this government has no issue identifying $87 million to address COVID monitoring and enforcement when no one has died in the NWT but is slow to act when it comes to dealing with a disease that is hospitalizing, killing, or destroying our family members and friends on a regular basis, I find this to be a travesty,” he said.
“This disease (drug addiction) does not work in a vacuum. To fuel itself, it takes advantage of peer pressure, lack of housing, unemployment, mental health issues, personal trauma, effects of residential schools, and other realities. Because of this, I expect and look to this government to take a cross-departmental approach to address it.
“We must look for and action real solutions that work for the people of the NWT.”
The day earlier, Simpson told the assembly the NWT leads a leader.
“The people of the NWT want a champion. They want a leader, and they want to hear from that leader. In this instance: the premier,” he said.
“They want her to show leadership and create enthusiasm by providing relevant information in a timely manner, not only on COVID matters but, just as importantly, the economy. I ask the premier: how will she accomplish this, that is, becoming a champion for the NWT?”
In answering his question, Cochrane offered one of her many apologies of the re-grouped Second Session.
“Again, like I said, rushing, all of departments rushing, all of us rushing to try to figure out what we needed to do to keep our people safe, I dropped the ball on communications,” the premier said. “Again, I did not realize how important it was. The secretariat, the issue with the secretariat brought it to the forefront.
“It told us that we need to do better, and so, like I said, our communications team is doing the best they can with the resources they have.
“You will see more in the coming weeks on how we are going to actually implement our communications strategy going forward.”
It was the first time the new-look Assembly was in place, with ousted minister Katrina Nokleby in her seat with regular MLAs as the Great Slave constituency rep and new cabinet member Julie Green with the health, seniors and social services portfolios. A cabinet shuffle early last month also saw new faces answering many of the same old questions.
The last sitting of this session ended in June. A short emergency sitting in late August to deal with Nokleby saw increasing acrimony between several factions of the house.
It will be interesting to see if the premier’s challenge to the MLAs to ‘Take her out’ — politically, of course — is accepted.
Grumblings over her performance have been growing under the surface, as the post-election promise of a vibrant new group of politicians shrugging off the do-nothing closed-door Assemblies of the past hasn’t materialized.
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who read this Sunday post. You have made it one of my most popular to date. I also received some interesting feedback from folks, both inside and outside of government. You can always contact me, preferably by email to email@example.com or texting me at 867-445-1842. The day after my post appeared, Cabin Radio did its own story on the events of Friday in the Assembly, which provided some updated numbers for the costs associated with the new COVID department/agency/secretariat.