North·YUKON VOTES 2021

Q&A | 'Anything could happen': Whitehorse Star editor weighs in on 2021 Yukon election

Jim Butler, longtime editor of the Whitehorse Star, sees a lot of big promises from Yukon's political parties, but no clear front-runner as the campaign enters the final stretch.

With less than a week before voting day, the outcome is still hard to predict, says Jim Butler

'A few key votes in fluid ridings could decide who's going to be our next government,' said Jim Butler, editor of the Whitehorse Star newspaper. (Vince Fedoroff/Whitehorse Daily Star)

Yukon's territorial election is less than a week away, and some Yukoners are starting to make predictions about what will happen on April 12.

According to Jim Butler, longtime editor of the Whitehorse Star, there's no apparent consensus on who is most likely to form the next government. The outcome is still a toss-up, he says, with all three parties offering grab-bags of promises in hopes of swinging just enough voters their way.

And then there's the pandemic, which has prevented big campaign-trail events or shows of support. 

"It's lacked pizzazz," Butler says of the 2021 campaign.

Butler spoke to Yukon Morning host Elyn Jones on Tuesday, about the election and what he's heard from the three parties.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How would you rate the excitement factor in this election, so far?

A: Well, running an election campaign in Zoom-land has certainly diminished the excitement factor. I think, you know, for a debate or a forum, you can't beat the sights and the sounds and the sensations of being in the hall — the clapping, the taking part in the cheering and the booing. The online exchanges seem so grey, so formalized. And it's not something a lot of people I've spoken to ever want to see again in a future campaign.

Bottom line, you just can't beat the flesh-to-flesh face time, though it is happening on doorsteps, of course, with masks and proper distancing. 

Q: Let's talk about some of the parties' performances and promises over the last few weeks. Let's start with the NDP — how have they done?

A: Well, [Leader] Kate White has certainly staked out her party's position considerably left-of-centre, with promises like the $15/hour minimum wage, taxing fly-in workers — which has been talked about for years but never acted on — and the one per cent tax on those earning $250,000-plus. There's universal child care, dental care, prescription medical coverage for those who need it.

It's been an energetic campaign, and I think these ideas will attract a lot of attention from a defined constituency. But will those voters outnumber those who may find some of these concepts a little radical for the historic Yukon milieu?

Yukon NDP Leader Kate White presenting her party's platform on March 30. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

The other question I think of legitimate concern is, many of these programs are ambitious but they haven't been costed — which essentially means voters are being asked to endorse a blank cheque. And a lot of people are going to ask, how wise is that? So I think voters will have to do some analysis by Monday. Is this the time to embrace a substantial upward trajectory in public spending, or is there little concern about this because of the tremendous escalations in federal transfer payments?

Q: Let's look at the Liberals then. How have they done, would you say? 

A: Well, there's no question they've turned some heads with many scores of projects in that $400-million capital component of the budget. And there's also the child care subsidy program, the promise last week for permanent protection for the McIntyre [Creek] region as a park, a thousand new lots in five years, the lodge for rural Yukoners visiting Whitehorse General Hospital. The continuation of the fracking ban, I think, will be very popular, and indefinite COVID relief money — that will create a lot of psychological relief. 

Conversely, I think they've started to add what many will view as less-urgent capital works concepts. An example is the arts and heritage centre, and a field house for up to $11 million. Now, these are desirable, but the question voters will have to look at is, with a budgetary deficit of $13 million, and the toll of future COVID relief uncertain, is this the time to be dedicating money to optional projects of this nature? 

Yukon Liberal Leader Sandy Silver announcing the territorial election last month in Whitehorse. (Danielle d'Entremont/CBC)

And the other thing that has struck me about the Liberal campaign is the modest profile [Leader Sandy Silver] has had.  Silver has been door-knocking and working in his Klondike riding, and he's keeping in daily touch with the campaign. But, you know, he is the Liberals' best asset, and there's some feeling that that hasn't been exploited to the extent it should have been.

Q: What about the Yukon Party then?

A: If I had a penny for every promise this party has made, I'd be sipping a piña colada and talking to you from Fiji this morning. The Yukon Party has something for everyone. It's an incredibly saturated platform that's using a real scattergun approach to secure mass appeal. 

Just a couple of examples: $28 million for a universal child benefit. A freeze on power rates, though I think the folks who find this most attractive will be those who will be least apt to consider the potential rate consequences three or four years down the road. An LNG plant, which I think will prove a lightning rod for both support and disagreement. More First Nations control over education, midwifery. 

Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon presents his party platform last week in Whitehorse. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

I see a real sense of [Leader] Currie Dixon seizing this party last year and definitely moving it toward the centre to try and snatch a good wedge of that Liberal and undecided vote on Monday. And he's doing it with a mix of familiar faces from the legislature and a smattering of new ones.

Q: What about the pandemic? Have the parties said enough about what they would do, if elected, to deal with it?

A: It's gotten less focus than I thought it would. As I mentioned earlier, [Silver] has promised indefinite COVID funding. You don't hear as much on that subject from the other two parties. And of course, Kate White said recently that she has deliberately adopted a low profile in terms of criticizing what's been done, preferring to leave the decisions to the experts like [Chief Medical Officer] Dr. [Brendan] Hanley. 

Q: We have six days left. What do you think the parties need to do to try to sway the vote for their party? 

A: Do a lot of door-knocking. You know, everything's in play.

There are so many question marks in this election. Can [Liberal candidate] Dan Curtis take a historically NDP seat downtown? [Liberal candidate] Jeanie McLean won by six votes in 2016, but she doesn't have to be a giant killer this time in defeating a premier, so will that improve her margin of victory this time? Currie Dixon — is he going to take [Liberal] Ted Adel's seat? And if so, where do the Liberals make up that seat? 

Yukon election signs in Whitehorse's Mountainview riding. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

The numbers are so small that those who I've quizzed informally are forecasting everything from the status quo, what we saw in 2016, to a party forming a wafer-thin minority. A few key votes in fluid ridings could decide who's going to be our next government, whether that be for a short-term minority period, or a full four-year majority.

Q: Can we pin you down on who you think will be forming a government on Tuesday? Do you want to go out on a limb?  

A: Well, I will say that historically, Yukoners tend to defeat unpopular governments. I do not sense a mass movement to dislodge the Liberals in that sense this time. But like I say, the numbers are so close, anything could happen.  

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