North·In Depth

Yukon premier brushes off opposition demands for more transparency on COVID-19 response

The Yukon Party and NDP say they appreciate the territory's Liberal government needed to act fast to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. But they say they still need opportunities to hold the government to account

'We get told to go to yukon.ca and look under COVID[-19],' NDP leader says

Yukon Party Leader Stacey Hassard, Premier Sandy Silver, and NDP Leader Kate White. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Yukon's opposition parties want more opportunities to question the Liberal government on its $1.6-billion budget and measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Sandy Silver seems far less interested.

The government has committed to new spending, and has issued orders-in-council under the Civil Emergency Measures Act, to quickly respond to issues raised by the pandemic.

"A lot of this needs to be done," interim Yukon Party Leader Stacey Hassard said of the government's actions, "but without proper scrutiny it's really unfair to the taxpayers of the Yukon."

NDP Leader Kate White said she appreciates the government's need to act quickly in a public health emergency. But she said the government shouldn't get a free pass on its response to COVID-19.

"It's not to say those aren't the right decisions, but there's no ability to ask how that decision was reached," White said. "And the one thing that we know in a functional government is it's the opposition's job to ask those questions."

Government too busy, premier says

The government does hold regular news conferences, with frequent cameos by cabinet ministers. On Tuesday, Silver said no provincial or territorial legislatures are sitting right now (although Parliament has managed to sit with reduced numbers to ensure physical distancing). 

Silver said the government has its hands full with managing the response to COVID-19. 

"Our government is absolutely focused on how to manage through a national health crisis unlike anything we've ever seen before," he said.

Hassard and White both said opposition MLAs also need to be able to answer questions from their constituents about government relief programs and public health measures.

"We get told to go to yukon.ca and look under COVID," White said.

Hassard said the opposition usually gets weekly briefings from Chief Medical Officer of Health Brendan Hanley, but sometimes those briefings get cancelled.

"Obviously, Dr. Hanley is a busy guy, but there's some frustrations there," Hassard said. "Yesterday I got an email about an hour before the briefing was supposed to take place saying 'Sorry, you're not getting a briefing this week.'"

Opposition pushes for more budget debate

Meanwhile, the opposition parties are also pushing for a chance to review the budget, which passed in March after just three days of debate. That's because the assembly had to shut down over concerns about the coronavirus. The Yukon Party and NDP both obtained concessions from the government in exchange for expediting the budget through the house. 

The Legislative Assembly's standing committee on public accounts has been summoned for a meeting May 6. As chair of that committee, Hassard can call the meeting. 

But what remains unclear is whether the Liberals on the public accounts committee will go along with any work that looks into the budget. The six-person committee is equally weighted between opposition and government members, so the Liberals on that committee can vote to derail any committee work they, or the premier, don't like.

The Yukon Legislative Assembly. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

On Tuesday, Silver said the government "committed to creating an opportunity for future scrutiny of the budget," without giving details. Silver also said he couldn't predict what Liberal MLAs on the committee would do, even though he's their boss.

Further complicating matters is the fact that public accounts, like all of the assembly's standing committees, works in secret. 

Geneviève Tellier, a professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, said Yukon's secretive committee system is an outlier in Westminster-style parliamentary systems. 

"It used to be common," she said. "But as the years pass the population expects more and the norm now is to have public hearings."

In a letter to all MLAs last week, Floyd McCormick, the former clerk of the legislature, suggested the public accounts committee has the authority to look into the budget, even though the committee typically examines government spending after the fact.

And, McCormick wrote, it could do that work in public.

In a letter to committee members obtained by CBC News, Hassard wrote that he has asked for McCormick's letter to be discussed at public accounts. Hassard also calls on the committee to develop a work plan, that observes physical distancing, until the Legislative Assembly resumes in October.

About the Author

Chris Windeyer is CBC Yukon's legislative reporter. He is the former editor of the Yukon News and was a 2018-19 Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.