10/26/2011 02:46 EDT | Updated 12/26/2011 05:12 EST

Northwest Territories' New Premier: Legislature Chooses Former Industry Minister Bob McLeod

YELLOWKNIFE - A man who started as a bureaucrat for the Northwest Territories is now running the government he used to work for.

Bob McLeod, once hired as the deputy minister of industry, trade and investment, was chosen the territory's new premier by his fellow legislature members in a secret ballot.

"It feels great," said McLeod, who became minister of the department in the last assembly after he successfully ran for a seat.

"This is something I've been working toward for a long time."

The N.W.T. held its most recent general election Oct. 3. Under the rules of its consensus government, which has no political parties, the premier is chosen by newly elected MLAs.

That vote was taken Wednesday after speeches by the three candidates and questions from their colleagues. McLeod and the assembly were to pick the cabinet Wednesday afternoon.

Those who don't become ministers will function as a kind of official Opposition.

McLeod, a Yellowknifer, has billed himself as an able consensus-builder. It's an essential skill in a legislature that has no party discipline to enforce passage of the government's agenda.

He will need all his negotiating skills for what's ahead.

By his own estimate, the N.W.T. has gaping infrastructure lacks and a cost of living that discourages people from residing there. Unsettled land claims and a notoriously unpredictable and slow regulatory process add risk to resource development. The population is aging and, in many places, is poorly educated and afflicted with social problems such as substance abuse.

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

A deal is also on the table to transfer control of the territory's lands, resources and royalties from Ottawa to Yellowknife, but most of the N.W.T.'s aboriginal governments oppose it. They feel they weren't adequately consulted during its negotiation and believe it won't give them enough of a role if it is passed.

"We have some significant challenges," McLeod admitted.

"We're one of only two jurisdictions in Canada to see our population decline. We know there's some systemic, fundamental challenges that we have to deal with in order to get people to come up and live up here.

"We need to work very closely with the federal government. We need to develop our economy. We need to find ways to reduce the cost of living."

His cautious, incremental style is unlikely to generate a lot of headlines from the N.W.T.'s handsome, zinc-lined legislature on the shores of Yellowknife's Frame Lake.

But there are signs McLeod can gets things done. He gathered enough support in the N.W.T.'s notoriously fractious legislature for a review of the territory's electrical system that resulted in savings for consumers. He also piloted a new water strategy through the legislature.

He's able to point to federal investments such as a $150-million pledge to complete a highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, a key piece of infrastructure for the northern oilpatch.

Getting northerners to work together will be the key, he said.

"There's some real opportunities. We will see this, perhaps, as a government that has forged a relationship with aboriginal governments (and) that we're all working together. And I think once that happens, a lot of these challenges will just fall by the wayside."