Yukon's Liberals got down to governing in their first spring sitting, but did they deliver?
Carbon tax, the territory's financial state, and infrastructure dominated discussion in the legislature
Yukon's Liberal government has finished its first sitting in the legislative assembly, and has managed to deliver on at least some of its campaign promises, but certainly not all.
The Yukon Party, meanwhile — now the official opposition — set the mood for the sitting early on by adopting an often bellicose tone, especially when it came to a couple of key topics, such as a carbon tax and anticipated government debt.
The opposition appears to have taken a page out of the Conservative Party of Canada's playbook, peppering its Facebook page and Twitter account with attack-style ads — similar to those the federal Conservative party has used to mock Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals.
Yukon Party ads feature a black and white cutout picture of Silver, gesturing and bearing a faint resemblance to a used car salesman.
Although Yukon territorial politics can get chippy, the Yukon Party's new approach takes it up a considerable notch.
No exemptions on talking carbon tax this sitting
To no one's surprise, the carbon tax proved to be a particularly tasty topic for the official opposition.
Yukon Party MLAs came out swinging with a barrage of questions that never let up. They've labeled it "the premier's carbon tax scheme" — an apparent attempt to connect the topic in the public mind with Sandy Silver, despite the fact that it's a federal tax.
Things heated up after a senior official at Environment Canada told CBC that exemptions would be considered in ongoing negotiations between the individual territories and Ottawa.
That was catnip for Yukon Party MLAs, who pounced on the word "exemptions" and accused Silver of misleading Yukoners when he said earlier that "an exemption was never an option" for Yukon.
This has become an issue of semantics: "an exemption" can be understood to mean a complete pass for Yukon on carbon pricing, in other words, no tax whatsoever. "Exemptions", on the other hand, would refer to specific reprieves for certain sectors in Yukon, such as has occurred in some maritime provinces where commercial fishers get a break on fuel they need for their fleet — but not a complete pass.
Silver says he's negotiating for those sorts of industry-specific exemptions, for example, for placer miners who rely on diesel to power their heavy equipment.
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna also clarified matters.
"We will discuss how a price on pollution will apply given the unique circumstances of the North; not whether a price on pollution will apply," she said in a memo.
The Yukon Party continued to pressure the Liberals, though, and once the plan for the tax is unveiled sometime this fall, we can expect that scrutiny to carry on through the fall sitting.
History catches up to Liberal premier, Yukon Party opposition
An interesting dynamic is playing out in the legislature between the government and the former governing party. The Yukon Party held office for 14 years before last fall, so any deficiencies in budgeting or management of capital assets that the Liberals are now encountering can credibly be laid at the opposition's feet.
The beleaguered Ross River school is a good case in point. It's been patched up for years — it turns out, since it was a year old. The former government was fully aware in 2015 that major repairs required would be a stopgap fix only, but it went ahead anyhow, spending $2 million in a manner some would consider irresponsible.
The Yukon Party has been noticeably silent on the issue of the ongoing problems with the school.
The party has also steered clear of the Dawson wastewater treatment facility, the Whitehorse airport apron, and a big cost overrun on the demolition of the F.H. Collins School.
But the Yukon Party has heavily criticized the new government for its projected deficits and debt, overlooking the fact that their forecast budget surplus last year of $9.4 million actually turned into an $8.2 million deficit. The Yukon Party harped on the "rosy financial picture" the Liberals inherited, but that's now looking more like some pre-election sleight of hand.
Speaking of things coming back to haunt you, the premier is being often reminded these days of things he once said in in while in opposition.
For example, Silver once attacked the Yukon Party government for special warrants. Once he took office, though, he promptly signed off on $456 million in special warrants, an unprecedented amount.
He called former Premier Darrell Pasloski's lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., in 2015 "nothing but some expensive hotel bills in Washington" — words the Yukon Party threw right back at Silver last week.
Before the election, Silver was the only Liberal in in the assembly so he personally must own every criticism his party once levelled against the Yukon Party.
Promises broken, promises kept
Out of the gate, the Liberals have broken some campaign promises, or to be charitable, deferred them.
For example, they promised to eliminate Yukon's small business tax rate. That didn't happen in this year's budget, instead it was dropped one point, from three per cent to two per cent.
Silver also promised to pave the Dawson City airport runway. But now there's waffling, and it's not clear if, or when, it might be done.
Then there's the $30 million promised for energy retrofits and renovations and $10 million promised for the Yukon Development Corporation's economic diversification — we're still waiting for those, too.
The Liberals have delivered on some promises — National Aboriginal Day is now a Yukon statutory holiday, and the Vital Statistics Act and the Human Rights Act have been amended to ensure equity for transgendered people.
Advisory panel for financial future
The Liberals have appointed a financial advisory panel that will tour the territory and glean ideas on what a long-term financial plan should look like.
The panel doesn't have a lot of time: it will consult in June and September and report in October. But it's half way through June and there's still no word on when the first public consultations will take place.
The panel could deliver real results that help to craft the way forward, or it could be a $250,000 boondoggle.
The Liberals are also trying to appear more accessible, offering a "daily scrum" following question period, with a minister of the press corps' choosing. That's a big change from the Yukon Party government, where select journalists were eventually denied any and all access to cabinet ministers and the premier.
The cabinet communications staff so far are responding to requests in a timely fashion, and that transparency appears to have trickled down to the departmental level with increased media access to senior officials.
Of course, it's still very early days for the new government, and the rapprochement with the media could well go south.