North·Analysis

With COVID-19 uncertainty swirling, tempers flare in Yukon politics

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver had little patience this week for opposition questions on COVID-19.

Sandy Silver's Liberals face criticism over vague responses on pandemic's impact on Yukon economy

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver stands in the Yukon Legislative Assembly on Mar. 5. Opposition politicians had plenty of questions for the premier this week about his government's COVID-19 preparedness. (Claudiane Samson/CBC)

With questions flying in the Yukon Legislative Assembly about the territorial government's plans to respond to the fallout from coronavirus, the Liberals appear to be adopting the principle of social distancing, and applying it to politics.

Sandy Silver's government came under fire from opposition parties this week for downplaying the threat posed to Yukon's economy by COVID-19, even as evidence mounted that this summer's tourism season is shaping up to be a bad one.

Most answers from Liberal ministers to opposition questions tended to stick to a reliable formula: the government is working with its partners (that is, other governments), it's closely monitoring the situation, and, by the way, the budget, tabled last week, is great.

On Monday, Tourism Minister Jeanie Dendys even insisted tourism operators were telling her the season was shaping up to be "business as usual." Two days later, Yukon's tourism industry group announced it's seeking at least $2.5 million in aid.

Monday also saw the Liberals use their majority to torpedo a Yukon Party motion to establish a committee to study the economic impacts of the crisis on the Yukon economy. The NDP also supported the motion.

"We didn't hear anything there that we're not already working on," Silver told reporters later.

Ministers offer some answers

To be fair, events as they relate to coronavirus are moving rapidly. But it took until Thursday to get specifics from the government in terms of the health care system's preparedness. Even then, that came mostly from the territory's top public health officials, who held a long and detailed news conference to answer questions about how they're preparing.

In the legislative assembly, answers, when they've come, have mostly been vague. As mentioned, the phrase "working with our partners" was heard frequently.

Yukon Minister of Health and Social Services Pauline Frost, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, and Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Catherine Elliott held a detailed briefing on Thursday, about the COVID-19 risk in Yukon. The territory has no confirmed cases. (Dave Croft/CBC)

There have been exceptions: Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn did tell the house that cleaning measures have been stepped up at the Whitehorse airport.

And Community Services minister John Streicker said he's open to an NDP motion to extend paid sick leave to all territorial workers, so that anyone in the service industry who has to self-isolate can still pay their bills. Streicker said he's asked officials in his department to look into it.

That was not enough for NDP Leader Kate White, who noted that the government already has amendments to the Employment Standards Act before the house.

"The worst decision is no decision at all," she said.

"So it's great that [Streicker] understands where I'm coming from. That's fantastic. We've got the Employment Standards Act open right now ... so let's do it." 

Premier digs in heels

But the premier's instinct has been to dig in his heels. On Thursday, when Yukon Party Leader Stacey Hassard questioned Health Minister Pauline Frost's competence after she gave incorrect information about self-isolation to reporters earlier in the week, Silver reacted angrily.

"Now more than ever is the time for us to unite as political parties and work together on this," Silver said in the legislature. "But what do we hear from the opposition? They don't want to talk about the budget. They want to find somebody to pin something on."

'They want to find somebody to pin something on,' said Silver. (Chris WIndeyer/CBC)

To be sure, the Yukon Party is not forgetting about the politics either. Questions got noticeably sharper in tone as the week wore on. 

But it's not clear what the territorial budget has to do with COVID-19. Silver insists there's no need to review the economic analysis underpinning the budget, while at the same time calling on the opposition to vote in favour of the budget because its measures are needed to help the economy deal with the fallout from COVID-19.

For his part, Hassard appeared taken aback by Silver's hostility. The economic committee, he said, was a good-faith offer by the Yukon Party to work together.

"It's really bizarre when you offer to help someone and instead of accepting that help they shit all over you instead," Hassard told reporters.

Perhaps Hassard, who's filling in as leader until Yukon Party members pick a new one, feels like he has less at stake politically (hence the casual swearing during scrums with reporters). For Silver, the stakes are higher.

For the Yukon's economy, they're higher still.

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