Photo by Whitehorse Star
Sandy Silver, Brad Cathers and Liz Hanson
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Sandy Silver, Brad Cathers and Liz Hanson
When the newly elected and re-elected MLAs take their seats in the legislature for the throne speech on April 20, more than five months will have passed since the Nov. 7, 2016 election day.
The first day of question period will likely be the following Monday, April 24.
Since the beginning of party politics in the Yukon in 1978, no government has gone so long between an election and its first question period.
The closest was Dennis Fentie’s Yukon Party, which faced its first question period on March 3, 2003, four months after being elected on Nov. 4, 2002.
In response to Thursday’s announcement that the legislative assembly would reconvene in April, Brad Cathers, the finance critic for the Yukon Party, tweeted that the delayed question period “Shows Premier (Sandy) Silver’s profound lack of respect for the Legislature.”
When asked in an interview Thursday to elaborate on his tweet, Cathers said that the Liberal government circumvented the legislative assembly and authorized millions of dollars in additional spending before tabling a budget.
Cathers is referring to the special warrant issued by the Yukon government in January, which authorizes up to $29.4 million in spending, and is meant to cover the costs of operating government until the end of the fiscal year on March 31.
Silver confirmed Thursday that, “much to my chagrin,” he will issue a second special warrant to keep government running through the end of June, until the 2017-18 budget is approved by the legislative assembly.
“We could have rushed this for political reasons,” he told the Star Thursday, but, “we want to do this right, take the time needed to make sure we have a more full account of what it costs the taxpayers to run the government.”
Cathers was quick to rebuke Silver for his use of special warrants.
“When (Silver) was in opposition, prior to taking the reins of power, he was very critical of the use of special warrants, except under, in his words, ‘exceptional circumstances,’” said the Lake Laberge MLA.
“He did promise that a Liberal government would do differently.”
Last April, Silver laid into the Yukon Party for bypassing the legislative assembly and issuing a special warrant for $235 million, and for beginning the spring sitting after the end of the fiscal year.
Public spending must be scrutinized and debated in the legislature, said Silver in an April 12, 2016 statement.
The Yukon Party’s use of a special warrant, he said, “demonstrates a lack of respect, in my opinion, for this Chamber and for democracy.”
Silver defended his use of special warrants to the Star on Thursday.
The Yukon Party, under former premier Darrell Pasloski, issued a special warrant in the fifth year of its mandate, he said.
If the Liberals do the same in four years’ time, “then sure, I will say that was a hypocritical statement.”
On Thursday, Cathers called the Liberals’ current and impending special warrants “entirely unnecessary.”
He said Silver could have convened a sitting of the legislature to introduce an interim supply bill instead.
An interim supply bill, which must be debated in the legislative assembly, would authorize the government to spend as necessary until the next budget is passed.
It’s not too late to call a sitting before the end of the fiscal year, said Cathers. The government need only give MLAs 14 days’ notice.
Cathers accused the Liberals of delaying question period because they aren’t ready to be interrogated on the special warrants, and on alleged Yukon Elections Act violations by Tamara Goeppel, an unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the 2016 territorial election.
Silver flatly denied Cathers’ charges.
“If that’s their criticism, it’s not true,” he said.
“There’s still going to be a legislated 60 days of sessions, so if they want to ask those questions, they still have the same amount of days to ask questions.”
In January, Silver revealed that the Yukon government faced an $8-million deficit – this despite the Yukon Party touting a $9-million surplus in the 2016-17 budget.
“One of the big things that hasn’t been done in the past is full cost of these major assets,” he said. “Full cost accounting of things like operation and maintenance of these big facilities.
“When you’re only putting on the books how much a building costs, you’re not showing taxpayers what we’re doing with their taxpayer money.”
He said Thursday that the Yukon Party didn’t account for at least $3 million in construction costs on “previous projects,” but would not name the projects because “information going in the current budget is embargoed.”
Silver commended the public servants who’ve gone into the weeds to prepare the upcoming budget.
“It’s been a lot of late nights with the public service,” he said.
“They deserve credit for their hard work.”
Of course, the Yukon Party says the deficit is the Liberals’ fault.
“They’re simply pulling a trick that many governments before them have, of claiming poverty when they came into office,” said Cathers.
The Liberals are issuing special warrants because they don’t want to answer questions about post-election spending, he said.
Since taking power last Dec. 3, the Liberals have announced new initiatives that weren’t in the previous budget, said Cathers. He gave the free Naloxone kits, now available at pharmacies and health centres across the Yukon, as an example.
Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and the free kits are part of the government’s response to a growing number of opioid-related deaths in the Yukon.
The Naloxone program “obviously has merit to it,” said Cathers, but it’s still new spending all the same.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson is giving Silver some slack for the late budget and sitting.
“They’ve got 14 years of (Yukon Party) stuff to sort through,” she said, adding that if they do this again next year, “you’ll have a very different response from me.”
Hanson credited the government for giving the public service and opposition parties seven weeks to prepare for the session.
“The games that were played by the Yukon Party, they wouldn’t tell you until two weeks before the legislative sitting,” she pointed out.
There’s a marked difference between this government and the one previous, she said, specifically in Silver’s willingness to engage with opposition parties.
“We’ve already had one meeting, which matches the total number of meetings we had in the last six years,” she said, referring to the previous Yukon Party mandate.
Hanson is confident Silver will follow through on his promise of legislating fixed dates for sittings of the legislative assembly.
“I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
“Let good wills prevail and let’s see if we can work together.”
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