Are Yukon's Liberals on a 'march of folly' with the Public Airports Act?

Premier Sandy Silver promised Yukoners would 'be heard' by his government, but now a small spot fire of controversy over 'consultation' has grown into a serious conflagration.

The government that promised Yukoners would 'be heard,' has stumbled into a hornet's nest

Premier Sandy Silver campaigned on a promise that Liberals 'will ensure that your voice is going to be heard, and that your concerns are going to be acted upon.' Some in the territory's aviation industry wonder what happened. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Three weeks into the fall sitting of the Yukon legislature, and nearly a year after they were elected, Sandy Silver's Liberal government encountered the first real test of its mettle. 

It revolves around Bill 6 — the Public Airports Act — designed to bring the territory into the 21st century. Right now, there's no existing legislation governing the administration of airports and airport lands in Yukon.

Ottawa transferred responsibility of Whitehorse and Watson Lake airports two decades ago, and since then airports have been governed by a mish-mash of laws.

So there's little question of the need for Bill 6.

The problem is what the Liberals came up with, and how they went about it — unwittingly stumbling into a hornet's nest.

Consultation is key

If there's anything the Liberals should have learned from watching the previous Yukon Party government lurch awkwardly from dispute to dispute, it's that consultation is key.

Right now, there's no existing legislation governing the administration of airports and airport lands in Yukon. Bill 6 is meant to change that. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

But the primary complaint about Bill 6 from the aviation industry, and some municipalities, is that they weren't adequately consulted. Few, if any, saw the actual draft legislation until just a few weeks before the bill was introduced in the house.

Glenn Priestly of the Northern Air Transport Assocation (NATA) recalled a "brief" phone call he had last summer with a government official, but said a "chit-chat" on the phone is not consultation.

NATA says the government official did not indicate that legislation was going forward in the fall, and Priestly says he took pains to point out to the official that similar legislation in the N.W.T. suffered from a lack of consultation with industry. 

"I warned him... don't make that mistake," Priestly said.

What's in a word? 

"The issue is what constitutes 'consultation,'" Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn said, in response to NATA's concerns. He conceded that perhaps that phone call was too informal.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "consult" this way: to "take counsel with; seek information or advice from; take into consideration or do one's best for... the interests of."

The aviation industry's message is loud and clear: the government did not seek its advice, or do its best for the industry's interests.

Many in the industry are now urging the government to start over on Bill 6, with full, formal consultations.

The Yukon Liberals' 2016 election platform had a clear message to Yukoners: 'Be Heard'. (CBC)

"Listening to Yukoners" was a key campaign promise for the Liberals, with the slogan "Be Heard" on every candidate's sign.

Liberals, Silver pledged, "will ensure that your voice is going to be heard, and that your concerns are going to be acted upon." 

So what happened with the Public Airports Act?

The bill was introduced in the legislature on Oct. 4, with questions beginning the next week. Silver's government could have acted swiftly then to address the industry's concerns, and put the bill on hold pending further consultations with stakeholders.

That may have prompted derisive comments from the opposition about the Liberals' inexperience, but the sting would've passed quickly.

'This bill will pass,' said Yukon Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn. (CBC)

The government also would have had a great comeback: "look, we promised to listen, we heard your concerns, and we're following through on our promises." 

Instead, Mostyn faced strenuous opposition and insisted "this bill will pass."

It's not a signature piece of legislation for the Liberals, and the government may have now alienated an influential element of Yukon's private sector.


Mental standstill

It might be helpful to turn to the prominent American historian, Barbara Tuchman, who tackled the issue of government bullheadedness ("the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state") in her influential 1984 book The March of Folly.

Tuchman identified three stages of folly shown by rulers and policy makers:

  1. A mental standstill, which "fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem";
  2. A rigidifying of initial principles, at a point when government could still use wisdom to re-examine, re-think, and change course. Such wisdom is "rare as rubies in a backyard," in the face of a need to protect egos, she argues. "The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor's ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement";
  3. Failures enlarge and damage grows until the folly is irreparable.  

The way government can avoid such folly, Tuchman says, is with moral courage — a quality she believes governments typically lack. 

"To recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government," she writes.

There's no danger that the Yukon government will fall on the issue of Bill 6, but it may well have a larger effect — other sectors may be watching closely to see if they can trust the Liberal pledge that they'll "Be Heard."


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