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NWT government could fall after budget is tabled

In an Arctic echo of last December's dramatic near-collapse of the Harper government over a fiscal update, the government of the Northwest Territories could fall Friday in a non-confidence vote the day after introducing its budget.

Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger was to table his budget in the territorial legislature Thursday.

But one member of the legislature introduced a motion of non-confidence in Premier Floyd Roland and his entire cabinet. The motion is to go to a vote Friday.

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"Most of the regular members have lost confidence in the premier and some of the cabinet members," said Jane Groenewegen, the member for Hay River who introduced the motion. "We thought it would be simpler and quicker and easier if we take out the whole group."

Under the rules of the NWT's consensus-style government, the premier and cabinet are chosen by all the members of the legislature after each election. The leader and his cabinet can be removed by a similar ballot and someone new chosen.

Ms. Groenewegen said the current executive has refused to work with fellow legislators and has deliberately withheld information.

She pointed to confusion over contracts for the Deh Cho Bridge, a $155-million span across the Mackenzie River.

Mr. Roland, elected in October 2007, initially told Ms. Groenewegen that the government's only financial exposure was a $9-million loan guarantee. It later emerged that the territory could be on the hook for much more if the anticipated toll revenue for the bridge didn't meet projections. That prospect is becoming more likely as industrial traffic in the North slows due to cooling commodity markets.

"We had to beg and claw to get that information, and that's not even honest," Ms. Groenewegen said. She added that the government refused to consult with regular members over plans to cut the civil service, restructure health and education boards and reduce health benefits to seniors. Members learned about the plans from their constituents, Ms. Groenewegen said.

"We went to him and said, 'Hey, where's your consultation with us about this?' He said, 'Oh, communication's not my forte."'

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Members also have concerns about a $34-million bailout to NWT-based Discovery Air.

Ms. Groenewegen, who heads the caucus of non-cabinet members that functions as a type of opposition, said she's confident the motion will pass.

"I'm not taking a stick and poking the other side of the house for fun."

Last December, the federal Liberals and New Democrats banded together and threatened to bring down Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government over measures contained in the fall fiscal update. Mr. Harper avoided a non-confidence vote when he persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. The coalition dissolved when the Conservatives came back after the session resumed last week and brought in a spending-rich budget.

Former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi also faced non-confidence motions in 2001 and 2002. Roland was the only member to vote in favour of removing Mr. Kakfwi in the 2001 vote, saying he had grown too arrogant.

The fate of Mr. Miltenberger's budget if the non-confidence motion passes was not immediately clear Thursday. The Chamber of Commerce has already said the territory needs stability during a time of uncertainty and economic turmoil.

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Ms. Groenewegen is unapologetic.

"The (steady hand on the tiller) isn't paying attention to where the boat's going."

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