Ranj Pillai is the first candidate in the Yukon Liberal Party leadership race to replace Premier Sandy Silver.
In an announcement this morning, the cabinet minister and MLA for Porter Creek South, who previously served as deputy premier, said he was throwing his hat in the ring for the premiership itself.
Silver announced in September he will step down from his role once a replacement was found.
Since then, there’s been speculation about when that might happen and who that replacement might be. Pillai was considered a likely candidate for the job, and today’s announcement came as little surprise.
Speaking before a packed room in the NorthLight Innovation building in Whitehorse, Pillai said years of political experience have given him the skills to be the next leader of the Liberals, and by extension, the next premier.
“I commit to being a premier that works hard, a premier who thinks and acts strategically, and a premier that serves absolutely all Yukoners,” he said.
He wants to lead without partisanship, he added, and would work with the other two parties to legislate in the best interest of the territory.
Though the announcement had few specifics, Pillai shared a number of issues a party under his leadership would pursue.
“Every day I hear from Yukoners concerned about the cost of living, how we address climate change in a way that doesn’t bankrupt our future generations, how we ensure stable and secure housing and access for health care for everyone.”
Though Pillai is the first to announce, there will likely be other candidates in the race for the party leadership, and there’s still some time before a replacement for Silver is chosen.
Pillai said he’s unaware whether any of his caucus colleagues will join him in the race, but all party members have created an “extremely
supportive” environment in the leadup to the contest.
Pillai told reporters he is grateful to Silver for his decade of work as party leader, and had received words of encouragement when he decided to run. He said that decision came late in the fall sitting.
“I’ve been pondering it a lot,” he said. “There’s some really tough files to deal with.”
He then listed inflation, the climate crisis, and shifts for Yukon energy as among the biggest issues he expects the future leader will have to face.
“There is a lot of work that has to be done,” he said. “But, again, I’ve been working in the community and in a number of different roles for a long, long time.
“I feel comfortable in a leadership role. I’m comfortable making tough decisions, and I’m comfortable having courageous conversations with
Asked what he’d focus on first if he won the leadership, Pillai said he couldn’t talk specifics just yet; he said he’s just focused on the leadership convention and his party’s transition for the time being.
He did say maintaining his party’s relationship with the NDP will be a priority though.
The two parties have a Confidence and Supply Agreement that will expire after January.
It gives the minority Liberal government a working majority and could be essential to staving off a non-confidence vote for the party before another election is called.
Relations have been rocky through the fall sitting, with the Liberals voting against amendments the third party proposed to the Oil and Gas Act. They would have required First Nations’ consent for oil and gas exploration.
NDP Leader Kate White wasn’t happy with the lack of support, and has been critical of the government for its refusal to commit to permanent rent control. Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn said this month that rent caps will end in January 2023.
Pillai said he hopes to negotiate and keep the relationship strong between the two parties.
Pillai can’t get ahead of himself just yet though; the leadership race is still in its early stages.
The Liberals only released rules for the campaign this week.
Candidates have to pay a $7,000 fee and get 10 party members’ signatures to run. Party members will cast votes on a ranked ballot at a party convention that has yet to be scheduled.
The party’s president must announce a convention date 42 days ahead of time, and nominations will close 21 days after that announcement.
The winner of the leadership will become premier. The government has until 2025 until another territorial election has to be called.
Some, like Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon, say the Liberals should call a general election once a new leader is in place, so all Yukoners can decide who leads the territory.
Pillai said this morning he would not do that if he won.
“I think at this point, people want stability,” he said.
“It’s really about staying the course, getting work done (and) bringing some new ideas to the table that haven’t been there.”
The other parties have made other requests that likely won’t be accepted.
At the start of the fall sitting in October, the Yukon Party and NDP released a joint statement asking the Liberal party to require candidates step down from cabinet positions should they decide to run for the leadership.
The parties were concerned cabinet positions and government resources could be “abused and used to campaign.”
But Silver said last month the cabinet is small – most ministers hold multiple roles, as the Liberals only hold seven seats – and are held to a high standard of conduct by law, including a conflict of interest act.
Party rules don’t require ministers to relinquish their cabinet positions, and Pillai told reporters today he doesn’t intend to step away from his.
He heads the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Tourism and Culture. He is also the minister responsible for the Yukon Housing Corp., the Yukon Liquor Corp. and the Yukon Lottery Commission.
Born in Nova Scotia, where he attended high school with Silver, Pillai moved to the Yukon after finishing his university studies in Halifax.
He became involved in politics soon after his arrival in 2001, becoming the president of the Yukon Liberal Party five years later, a role he would hold on and off from 2006 to 2016.
He also became a Whitehorse city councillor in 2009, and served until 2012. He’s also served as executive director of the Champagne and
Aishihik First Nations government.
Since 2016, he’s represented Porter Creek South for the Liberals.
In his time in the legislature, through his cabinet positions, Pillai has played key roles in developing the Yukon’s Agriculture Policy and Climate Change/Green Economy strategy, as well as Yukon Energy’s 10-year renewable electricity plan.