5 things to watch during the Yukon Liberals' first spring sitting
Premier Sandy Silver made a lot of promises on the campaign trail. Can his party deliver?
For the first time in 14 years, the spring sitting of the Yukon legislature — which begins Thursday afternoon — will see a new territorial government in action. The Liberal administration of Premier Sandy Silver has taken the reins from the long-governing Yukon Party.
Silver's caucus is made up of legislative newbies, with Silver himself the only Liberal MLA with territorial legislative experience.
But despite the inexperience, the Liberal cabinet is an educated bunch — made up of lawyers, engineers, and several university graduates.
The Liberals promised respectful, transparent government if elected.
Will they deliver?
Here are five things to watch during this legislative sitting.
1. Where's the beef?
The budget is always the big event of the year — not just for legislators and government departments, but indeed for all sectors of the Yukon's economy, given how excessively dependent the territory is on government spending (read: federal transfer payments).
During its tenure, the Yukon Party steered the territory through the unpredictable shoals of the commodities markets, sometimes not so well (Yukon's gross domestic product has taken a dive in recent years).
And while Yukon still has no net debt, expect the days of the surplus budget to end — at least in the short term. The Yukon Party spent generously over the summer and fall and last year's projected surplus of $9.4 million has gone the way of summer wages.
Premier Sandy Silver's first budget will be delivered next week, and it will indicate his priorities for the territory — how he'll put the Liberal stamp on programs, policies, and capital projects. And it's time: the Liberals have already been in office for six months.
2. A Capital Plan
One unsavoury aspect of taking the reins of office from a party that's been entrenched for a decade and a half is that you inherit all its big plans for bricks-and-mortar projects, or what's known in government parlance as "capital builds." For the Liberals, some have already been built but the spending headaches continue.
That's the case with the Dawson wastewater treatment facility, or what then-opposition MLA Sandy Silver once dubbed the "WTF". It's now his W.T.F.
The government has filed a lawsuit against Corix Utiliites, the Alberta company that built the plant. The facility is still not operating as it should, and the town of Dawson has refused to assume ownership.
Then there's the massive Whistle Bend continuing care facility — costing $146 million to build, and already seeing some setbacks. Plans for underground parking had to be altered, and there have been issues with a sinking foundation.
The company, PCL Construction, says it's not a problem. The minister has ordered his own engineering review.
The previous government balked when asked to divulge how much it will cost to operate the facility once it's open. That too now lands on the Liberal lap. A 150-bed facility won't run on a dime. And there's a good chance it's been "overbuilt", because the original design called for 300 beds.
The Whitehorse airport tarmac also has issues. The government is suing local company Norcope, claiming shoddy work on a $3.7 million contract to replace the apron.
The demolition of the old F.H. Collins high school has also encountered delays and may see cost overruns of a couple million dollars. Will the public be expected to pony up?
The Liberals will also be expected to make some headway on a new Francophone high school, which the former government committed to — another big chunk of change.
3. Promises, promises
That brings us to the Liberals' plans, both for capital projects and programs. Yukoners have been patiently waiting to see which campaign promises the party will make good on, and how soon.
First off, they promised a five-year capital plan for government spending, something the contracting community welcomes because it provides predictability.
The Liberals also promised to issue government tenders early in the year, so contractors can be ready to actually build during construction season.
Both those commitments have fallen by the wayside this year, but expectations will be high for next year's cycle (changes in the procurement process, however, are being put into place for this year).
The Liberals also said they would eliminate the small business tax, and reduce the corporate tax rate from 15 to 12 per cent, by July.
Silver also promised to create a $10 million economic investment fund at the Yukon Development Corporation, pave the Dawson City runway, fast track the second fibre-optic line into the territory, and help communities develop community plans and "mining within municipality" policies, compensating miners where appropriate (a potentially expensive undertaking).
They also promised to spend $30 million per year to help Yukon governments, businesses and homeowners renovate and retrofit for energy efficiency.
They committed to making National Aboriginal Day a statutory holiday, create a public registry for lobbyists, legislate fixed election dates and amend the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (ATIPP) Act to make government more transparent.
That's but a small sample of the Liberals' platform promises. Granted, the government has until 2021 to deliver, but people will expect to see some real progress this first year.
4. Crafting a Yukon carbon tax
Carbon pricing was a central issue of the 2016 election campaign (fracking was another).
Yukon Party candidates hung their hats on a promise to keep the territory carbon tax-free, even holding the election call in a grocery store to make a point about the cost of living.
But it's difficult to fight an idea that's being pushed by the federal government and has been accepted by most other jurisdictions.
All the provinces agreed to a framework for carbon pricing with the Vancouver Declaration of 2016; now the Yukon government must work with the federal government to craft a plan that will work here — a remote northern jurisdiction with a small population, a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, and a dependence on resource extraction industries.
We can expect many a question from the Yukon Party on this topic; not so much from the NDP.
5. First Nations: Feelin' the Love
The Liberals concentrated heavily on First Nations relations during the election campaign, and to his credit, Silver worked hard in the preceding years to build solid relationships with Yukon First Nations governments.
The Liberals made a great showing at this year's mineral roundup and other industry forums, coming out in force with First Nations' partners. They signed a joint memorandum of understanding on mineral development.
The Liberals acted as midwife to produce a joint letter in support of the federal Bill C-17, which repeals the four problematic clauses of Bill S-6. It's signed by the government, the Council of Yukon First Nations, and the Yukon Chamber of Mines. The mining industry likes to see this kind of harmony; it means they can assure investors that their cash is secure.
The Liberal government has avoided court with the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation over consultation on mineral staking.
The Kaska are the sticking point on the First Nation file. The Ross River Dena Council and Liard First Nation are outliers who aren't interested in the Umbrella Final Agreement.
Early in their tenure, the Liberals extended the free-entry staking ban to include the remainder of Kaska territory (Ross River has had a moratorium since 2013). That means 23 per cent of the richest mineral land in Yukon is off-limits to exploration.
So here's the real test of Silver's oft-stated commitment to reconciliation: can the Liberals crack the decades-long intransigence of the Kaska? Can they reach agreement on what "consultation and accommodation" looks like, and where it applies?
Smooth relations with other First Nations is child's play in comparison.