Whitehorse Daily Star

Image title

Photo by Whitehorse Star

CONFRONTATIONS ADJOURNED – The Liberal government (left) and the Yukon Party and New Democrats (right) have completed their first full sitting of the government’s five-year mandate. MLAs also met for one day on Jan. 12.

‘Our narrative is for the future,’ Silver says

The Yukon Liberal Party kicked off its mandate

By Sidney Cohen on June 14, 2017

The Yukon Liberal Party kicked off its mandate by setting a tone of inclusivity and positivity that reflected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s, and his “sunny ways.”

Premier Sandy Silver set the stage for a modern Yukon government by appointing a cabinet with gender parity and two First Nations ministers.

His first act saw National Aboriginal Day on June 21 be made a statutory holiday.

His second amended the Vital Statistics and Human Rights Acts to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.

The 34th legislative assembly rose from its spring sitting Tuesday. It will reconvene for the fall on Oct. 3.

A marked difference in tone between the current Liberal and previous Yukon Party governments was noted by NDP Leader Liz Hanson during an interview this morning.

She said the Liberals were polite during the 30 days of question period, and applauded them for the legislative changes that protect transgender rights and recognize First Nations culture.

And yet, said Hanson, for a party that championed the premise that good ideas can come from the left and the right, the Liberals have shown little interest in proposals from the opposition.

“It’s very clear that if it’s not on their agenda, they’re not going to do it, it’s sort of like you’re politely being dismissed,” she said.

Hanson cited NDP calls for protections for mobile homeowners and any worker who develops post-traumatic stress syndrome on the job.

The Yukon Party would undoubtedly agree.

The official Opposition repeatedly hammered the government to “stand up for Yukoners” and fight for a blanket exemption to the carbon tax.

To be sure, the federal carbon pricing backstop will be imposed in every province and territory that does not develop its own plan to tax fossil fuel emissions.

Special considerations are being given to the more fuel-reliant territories, but the federal Environment minister has said an all-out exemption is not an option.

The premier “essentially rolled over on this issue, let Ottawa tell him what the Yukon was going to get and how it was going to be rolled out,” interim Yukon Party Leader Stacey Hassard said Tuesday.

“Someone said it’s very hard to negotiate when you’re both sitting on the same side of the table, and I think that’s an interesting analogy.”

The Yukon Party asked more questions about “the premier’s carbon tax scheme” this spring than any other single issue. Hassard said that was because the opposition simply wasn’t getting answers.

Yukon Party MLAs asked why the government had not studied the potential impacts of a carbon tax on Yukoners, businesses and tourism before agreeing to the federal plan.

The territorial and federal governments are jointly studying these impacts now, and expect to have results this fall.

They asked whether the five per cent GST Yukoners pay at the pumps will apply to the price of fuel plus the carbon tax (most likely, it will) and if Yukoners will recoup the extra GST they pay carbon-taxed fuel (the jury’s still out on that one).

Silver promised to return all revenue collected through the carbon tax to Yukoners and Yukon businesses in the form of rebates, but it’s still unclear how exactly this will work.

That the government is waiting on direction from Ottawa on (virtually every element) of the carbon tax plan was another constant refrain heard this spring.

Of course, the Liberals ran on a promise to introduce a carbon tax to the territory, and won.

The NDP typically avoided the carbon tax conflict, but today Hanson lamented the fact that debate focused mostly on whether the Yukon could get out of a paying the levy rather than how to make the program equitable and effective.

“Equitable in the sense that... lower-income and middle-income people would not see themselves burdened by more tax, and that a portion of that tax should be directly invested in how we’re combating climate change,” she said.

“Because that’s what this tax is about, it’s about climate change, and that got lost in this rhetorical game.”

The Liberals took longer than any previous ruling party to hold their first sitting of the legislature after an election, beginning question period almost six months after voting day on Nov. 7, 2016.

The 2017-18 budget, totalling $1.44 billion, was tabled nearly a month into the new fiscal year.

In order to carry on government operations until the budget passed, the premier issued two spending warrants, including one worth a record $427 million.

Silver shunted blame for these warrants, and the delayed budget, to the Yukon Party. The premier said the Liberals took office believing the government was in a $9.5-million surplus position, when it had actually run an $8.3-million deficit.

Silver committed yesterday to “get away from special warrants” and reserve these and other extra-budgetary measures for emergency situations.

The premier has said that budgets in years past did not fully account for the “true cost of government,” specifically, the long-term operations and maintenance costs of large new capital assets, such as the $150-million continuing care facility in Whistle Bend.

“We came in and we saw that the books weren’t as we thought,” said Silver yesterday. “We have five years to get ourselves back on track.”

Hassard fully expected the Liberals would blame the Yukon Party for “everything that the government felt was wrong.”

“They’ve been in government for almost eight months now and they really need to start taking responsibility for their own actions,” he said.

Perhaps the most striking revelations of the 2017-18 budget were the massive deficits projected for the years following this year’s $6.5-million surplus.

The Yukon is expected to outspend its income by $48.9 million in 2018-19, and $58 million and $42 million, respectively, in the two years after that.

More than once in the House, the Yukon Party said the Liberals inherited the “rosiest financial situation” of any government in the territory’s history.

While the accuracy of that statement is debatable, the Yukon Party did leave government with $93 million in net financial assets; that is, “cash in the bank.”

If the government continues on its current path, it’s predicted to run up a $216-million debt by 2020-21.

“I don’t see how you can blame that on a previous government,” said Hassard.

To reporters on Tuesday, Silver said the “rosy picture” the Yukon Party contends it left behind is a fantasy, but suggested he is tired of pointing fingers.

“If we get the opposition trying to mislead folks or trying to say something that’s not true, we will correct the record, but we have no intention of continuing a narrative of the past, our narrative is for the future,” he said.

In an effort to stabilize the Yukon’s finances, the Liberals have struck an independent financial advisory panel of five experts from inside and outside the territory.

The panel will begin its work next week and report back to the government by Oct. 31.

Hanson said she’s concerned the panel’s recommendations will lead to program and services cuts, because the government seems fundamentally opposed to raising taxes on corporations.

In the face of such steep deficits, the Liberals went ahead with their campaign promise to cut the corporate tax rate from 15 per cent to 12 per cent, and lower the small business tax rate from three per cent to two per cent, said Hanson.

Silver actually broke his promise to eliminate the small business tax altogether.

“If you take an ideological approach that taxes are bad for corporations, which this government has demonstrated... then you’ve just cut off a source of revenue for yourself,” said Hanson.

“You’ve already said ‘no’ to revenue maybe coming from potential carbon taxing, so then you’re setting yourself up to where you’re making program cuts.”

This summer, the government will be faced with some tough choices that will add more pressure to its already-strained budget.

What will it do about perpetual structural issues at the Ross River School? Engineers say the building must again be relevelled this summer – which will cost an estimated $1.2 million.

The school in Ross River isn’t the only one of which there are “concerns,” conceded Silver.

Now that the legislative session is out for the summer, the government has more time to travel to communities and engage with Yukoners.

There are no vacations, said the first-term premier.

“There’s stay-cations, I guess.”

Comments (3)

Up 0 Down 0

Atom on Jun 20, 2017 at 2:58 pm

Since the Yukon Party neglected to address issues with schools and overburdened (mismanaged infrastructure development) us with O&M costs into the future....mislead us re the actual financial picture for the past how many years?....overspent in the election run to their cronies, I expect folks to be understanding regarding the Liberals mandate and economic plan....elected for their abilities, amen.
Hassard and Co. are officially outed as inept and just what the evidence proves.

Up 7 Down 0

Jc on Jun 14, 2017 at 6:09 pm

I remember the days, when Ministers were appointed for their abilities. Now, its just for politically correctness. Can't properly run a government that way.

Up 4 Down 0

Silver Said Be Heard! on Jun 14, 2017 at 6:01 pm

If the Liberals run up a 200 million deficit that will be very bad news for a long time to come, we can't afford to fall into the never ending trap of deficit financing and paying debt interest charges in this tiny little jurisdiction. It will basically just mean the current government can't figure out how to live within its means and will let future governments and generations of Yukoners try and fix its mess.

Add your comments or reply via Twitter @whitehorsestar

In order to encourage thoughtful and responsible discussion, website comments will not be visible until a moderator approves them. Please add comments judiciously and refrain from maligning any individual or institution. Read about our user comment and privacy policies.

Your name and email address are required before your comment is posted. Otherwise, your comment will not be posted.