What does the NDP need to gain power once again?

The party will need to do some soul searching before we head to the polls again

In my Dec. 20, 2017 column I speculated about how a future return to power for the Yukon Party’s might unfold. Now it’s time to ponder what the future holds for the Yukon NDP — which was reduced from official opposition to just two MLAs in the 2016 territorial election.

Elizabeth Hanson continues to lead the party but after more than eight years at the helm and two election campaigns there is speculation about her future as leader.

The current era is an anomalous one in the Yukon’s short history of partisan electoral politics. Before Sandy Silver’s Yukon Liberals came to power in 2016 the party had enjoyed just one short term in office and has traditionally been the smallest party in the legislature. In the elections of 1982 and 1989 the party was wiped out completely.

Not only have the Liberals rarely governed, they have not played the role of official opposition very often either. They were the second largest party just twice — between 1978 and 1982 under the leadership of Iain MacKay and between 1996 and 2011 under Arthur Mitchell.

Yukon politics has of course been dominated by the Yukon Party with the NDP playing second chair. The NDP has occasionally governed — between 1985 and 1992 under the leadership of Tony Penikett and again (after a brief hiatus) in 1996 and 2000 under Piers McDonald.

But those days are becoming faded memories. So what does the NDP need to gain power once again? After being passed over in the last election in favour of the Liberals as an alternative to a tired Yukon Party government, the party will need to do some soul searching before we head to the polls again.

Despite a strong desire for change, the party lost 226 votes compared to its 2011 showing. There were only a handful of ridings where the party was a close second.

It wasn’t for a lack of substantive policy and ideas.

The Yukon NDP, despite being shut out of government for nearly two decades, to its credit has been a strong voice for social democratic and environmental causes in the territory. It deserves some credit, for example, for nagging the previous Yukon Party government until it introduced the more tenant-friendly Residential Landlord and Tenant Act.

During the 2016 campaign it made a spirited pitch that was strong on environmental issues including fracking and the Peel watershed; and (agree or not) made a substantial increase to the minimum wage a centre-piece of its platform. (As an aside, it is regrettable that we didn’t have enough of a debate over that particular plank during the short campaign.)

The fundamental problem the NDP in the Yukon faces, I think, is that our high transfer payments mean more conservative parties have not had to ignore the territory’s social needs in the way that jurisdictions which actually have to make tough choices between taxes and spending do.

The previous Yukon Party government invested heavily in the kind of social infrastructure that might typically be associated with social democrats. We have two new hospitals, a new homeless shelter, a new emergency room, a new building for alcohol and drug services, and a new continuing care facility on its way.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have our issues — a lack of affordable housing being the most acute — but they aren’t ignored by other parties in the way that they often are elsewhere. The Yukon Party also maintained a state of relative peace with its public-sector unions thus mollifying a certain constituency that might find a natural home with the NDP.

I wrote previously that the Yukon Party will find its route back to power in the choices the government makes in addressing the fiscal crunch we find ourselves in.

It is plausible that the government’s decision-making on budgets (or the environment for that matter) will kill off some of the voter enthusiasm that drove its 80 per cent surge in support in 2016. And, such a decline in voter turnout would indirectly benefit the NDP.

But could it also contribute to any sort of surge in NDP support? I think the Liberal Party’s handling of these issues present fewer openings for the NDP than the Yukon Party. People just don’t look to the parties of the left for balanced budgets or anti-tax populism and I have doubts that we will see any sort of deep spending cuts or hard restraint that will hurt the poor and lower middle class in a way that drives voters into the arms of the NDP.

If the Yukon Party’s road to power is the South Canol, the NDP’s is the north. I think it will take a confluence of certain factors — including a new sense of energy and enthusiasm within the party, some serious errors on the part of the government, and probably poor choice in new leadership on the part of the Yukon Party as well. Running on the issues hasn’t seemed to be enough in recent years.

But if the NDP can get itself elected in Alberta it can certainly happen here. It is just a question of how to get it done.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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