10/03/2011 10:50 EDT | Updated 12/03/2011 05:12 EST

Winning Northwest Territories Candidates Must Now Pick A Premier

Flickr: mjb84

YELLOWKNIFE - The voters have spoken, but the election is only half complete.

The 19 newly elected representatives in the Northwest Territories' new government are now turning their attention to choosing a premier. At least one candidate has so far announced his willingness to lead the western Arctic into uncertain times ahead.

"The big issue continues to be the economy," said Bob McLeod, the MLA from Yellowknife South who hopes to take over from former premier Floyd Roland, who retired from politics. "There continues to be concern about what's happening out there."

There are no political parties under the N.W.T.'s system of consensus government. Candidates run as individuals and the successful ones meet later to choose a premier among themselves. The premier then selects the cabinet, with the unchosen MLAs functioning as a kind of opposition.

McLeod, who ran unopposed, was the only candidate to openly state his willingness to stand for premier during the election.

Other candidates are expected. But those seeking the job rarely declare their intentions until after they know if they'll have a seat.

Votes were still being counted late Monday night.

"My expectation is that there's others out there who have already been working on this," McLeod said.

Early returns saw incumbents ahead in many constituencies. One of them was Michael Miltenberger, a longtime cabinet minister who has run for premier in the past and who some expect to run again.

A former deputy minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, McLeod ran for office in 2007 and was named minister of his old department.

He's moved carefully, building enough support in the N.W.T.'s notoriously fractious legislature to be able to point to some significant accomplishments. Some potential colleagues announced they want McLeod for premier even during the election.

He managed to complete a review of the territory's power system that actually resulted in reductions for power consumers. He piloted a new water strategy through the legislature.

And he's able to bask in the glow of federal investments such as the $150 million pledged to complete the highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, a key piece of infrastructure for the northern oilpatch.

"With my strong track record of collaboration with my colleagues, we have accomplished a lot," said McLeod.

Whoever wins will have to move quickly on the N.W.T.'s perennial issues — preparing the territory's resource-based economy for a downturn and stickhandling a federal deal on province-like powers.

"We would need to position ourselves so we would have an economic strategy that would be responsive to any changing economic conditions," said McLeod. "Last time there was a downturn, the three mines (in the territory) cut back and we were fortunate they didn't close down completely."

McLeod said the territory needs to find sources of capital for its share of infrastructure spending.

The N.W.T. has nearly reached a federal borrowing cap that limits the territory's capacity for running deficits. At the same time, it's trying to build roads, bridges and hydro developments to help take advantage of abundant mineral wealth and bring down the high cost of living.

Those goals will be tough to reach without a deal with Ottawa giving the territory its long-awaited control over resources and the royalties they generate. The agreement in principle on the table is widely opposed by the N.W.T.'s powerful aboriginal governments, but McLeod said there's still some room to manoeuvre.

"That opportunity is there to make the changes as we move to a final agreement," he said. "We have to find a way together to get everybody at the table.

"Everybody indicates that devolution is going to be the big question."

-- By Bob Weber in Edmonton