Bob McLeod: Sessional Statement
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this final opportunity to welcome Members back to the Legislative Assembly. This will be the last sitting of the 17th Legislative Assembly, and while our time together will soon be drawing to a close, the work that we began here does not end.
The successes we have achieved and the plans and strategies we have put into action – all of which depended on the input and support of Members – will continue, helping to shape the future of this territory according to the vision and priorities we first set out four years ago.
The 17th Legislative Assembly and Government of the Northwest Territories have been guided by a vision of strong individuals, families and communities sharing the benefits and responsibilities of a unified, environmentally sustainable and prosperous Northwest Territories.
That is an ambitious vision; it is also an enduring vision, a vision Northerners have shared for many years. It is an ambition that will take time and commitment to realize, certainly more time than the four-year life of any one government provides.
The goals and priorities Members established at the beginning of the 17th Assembly describe how we have worked towards our shared vision. Our priorities have been to build a strong and sustainable future, increase employment opportunities, strengthen and diversify our economy, address housing needs and ensure a fair and sustainable health care system.
Elections are an important time for revisiting our vision, priorities and plans. They are a time when citizens and candidates have an opportunity to participate in a broad and vigorous discussion about different visions and priorities for the future.
Elections are a time for us to take stock and ask important questions that will shape the decisions and actions of the next government: Do we have the right vision? Can it be improved? What else can we do to make it a reality? What are the challenges we will have to overcome to create the strong, prosperous and environmentally sustainable territory Northerners want? Which I believe we can have?
All of those questions must be left to the 18th Assembly to answer, but I would like to offer some observations on some of the challenges that the territory and the government will clearly be facing in coming years.
Few of these challenges will come as a surprise to anyone, they are the same ones that have shaped and constrained the decisions of past governments for many years: addressing the high cost of living, especially the cost of energy, growing the territorial economy, continuing efforts to grow the population, dealing with the infrastructure deficit, encouraging responsible resource development while protecting the land and environment, and dealing with the effects of climate change all while finding the money to fund government operations and invest in infrastructure across the territory.
These are complicated challenges that lie outside the direct control of government. Many are the result of global economic conditions and the effects of geography on our territory. Responding to them will require effective partnership with everybody that has a stake in a successful and prosperous Northwest Territories, including our government, the federal government, Aboriginal and community governments, business and industry, non-government organizations and individual citizens. Solving them means extending our planning horizon beyond the normal life of an Assembly, trying to understand what the next 10, 15 or 20 years hold and planning accordingly.
With this perspective in mind, aligning government spending to revenues will be one of the most important challenges for the next Assembly, a challenge with far-reaching implications.
The first thing to understand is that government revenues are closely tied to the size of the territorial economy and its growth prospects, which is in turn tied to resource development. The outlook for the Northwest Territories economy over the next five years is mixed, with some regions continuing to benefit from active resource projects, while activity in other areas has slowed considerably or declined.
The picture for five to 15 years out does not look much better, with current diamond mines all predicted to wind down. Projects currently being planned will not be able to match existing ones for economic activity. Resource exploration in the territory continues to be limited and bringing a new project into operation can take as much as ten years.
Slow economic growth over this time period means a flat revenue outlook for the Government of the Northwest Territories for potentially the next 15 years, meaning less money to sustain government programs and services or infrastructure investment.
We want to change this outlook and need to act now to make the Northwest Territories a more attractive and competitive place to live and do business. For the resource sector, this means continuing to invest in transportation and energy infrastructure that will aid exploration and improve project economics. It also means continuing to invest in efforts to grow the Northwest Territories population, including the high cost of living.
Investments of this nature will require an outlay of resources that will be difficult to come by so long as our revenue outlook is flat. Generating more revenue by raising taxes for our citizens or increasing royalties and corporate taxes will only increase the cost of living and discourage investment. That means our only option is to look internally for the resources, aligning our expenditures to our revenues so we are in a position to fund any new initiatives or capital investments.
These efforts need to be complemented by other actions to encourage responsible resource development, the single biggest sector of the territorial economy. Continuing to strengthen and refine our approach to responsible resource development and environmental protection is one example.
Outside of economics, certainty is one of the biggest factors influencing resource development. Having a consistent and predictable approach to how our government makes land-use and resource development decisions ensures developers can make investment decisions with some degree of confidence. Continuing to refine and strengthen the regulatory system post-devolution reduces duplication and delays for developers and ensures stronger decisions grounded in Northern priorities and values.
Continued progress in negotiating and implementing land, resource and self-government agreements in partnership with Aboriginal governments will also be critical. Settled agreements complemented by solid, collaboratively developed land-use plans will bring political certainty to our government and Aboriginal governments, as well as economic certainty and opportunity to industry. With 144,000 square kilometers of mineral-rich land subject to interim land withdrawals for decades, settling outstanding claims will create new economic opportunities and revenue possibilities for ourselves and Aboriginal governments both.
We also need to continue efforts to diversify the economy and strengthen relationships with potential investors and markets outside the Northwest Territories. Bringing the message about the tourism and investment opportunities our territory offers to places like Asia and the United States continues to be important. That effort is paying off in increased Asian tourism and the recent visit to the Northwest Territories of His Excellency Luo Zhaohui, Ambassador of China to Canada. Our leadership of PNWER for the past year has increased the profile and awareness of the Northwest Territories among western Governors and Premiers. That awareness will be further promoted when over 200 people come to Yellowknife for the PNWER winter meeting this November.
Mr. Speaker, this territory has tremendous potential. We have abundant natural resources and talented hard-working people ready and able to turn the natural advantages the Northwest Territories enjoys into long-term prosperity for our children and their children. The work Members have done during this Assembly has been focused on creating a strong foundation for that future, based on the vision, goals and priorities we agreed to four years ago.
With the support and guidance of Members, we have signed formal agreements that strengthened our relationships with Aboriginal governments, brought in devolution, and achieved two increases in the federal borrowing limit. With the Land Use and Sustainability Framework, Wildlife Act, transboundary water agreements and post-devolution work on resource development regulation, we continue to refine and strengthen our land and resources management regime.
We continue to work to increase employment opportunities, particularly in communities and regions, through decentralization and regional recruitment initiatives, earning recognition as one of the nation’s top diversity employers and employers for young people two years in a row.
We have made strategic infrastructure investments in the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Line and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway and continue to advance the Mackenzie Valley Highway and plan for the Tlicho Winter Road and a road into the mineral-rich Slave Geological Province. We have developed an Economic Opportunities Strategy and Mineral Development Strategy and are working on an Oil and Gas Strategy to guide us in the wise use of our resources.
We are addressing housing needs through implementation of Building for the Future, the strategic plan emerging from our Shelter Policy Review, including improvements to public housing rents and a broader range of supports for homeowners and those wishing to transition to more permanent housing options.
We continue to invest in a fair and sustainable healthcare system by investing in strategies aimed at prevention and root causes like the Early Childhood Development Strategy, an Anti-Poverty Strategy, Addictions Strategy, Community Wellness Strategy, community safety strategies and others. We also continue to make progress on health system transformation that promises best care, best health for our residents in coming years.
All Members of this Assembly have played a critical role in this work and should share in the credit for these achievements. It could not have been done without the support, participation and input of Members and I want to thank you all for your commitment to building a strong, prosperous and environmentally sustainable territory.
Our work as legislators in the 17th Assembly is coming to an end, Mr. Speaker, but the work of investing in our people, our economy and our environment continues. There are some challenges ahead, as I have indicated, but I am confident that the people of the Northwest Territories and the leaders they will choose for the next Assembly are up for the challenge. This Assembly has set the wheels in motion; it will now be up to the 18th Assembly to continue the work of creating a strong, sustainable North that is home to healthy, educated people.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.