free the sock puppets

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is energetic, affable and feisty. These are all fine qualities for a prime ministerial sock puppet. Conservatives will grumble that's an unfair characterization.

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is energetic, affable and feisty. These are all fine qualities for a prime ministerial sock puppet.

Conservatives will grumble that’s an unfair characterization. But most won’t mean it. Anyone who’s given cursory attention to federal politics knows how little leeway Conservative MPs have in veering from their party’s official script.

Leef’s no exception. Consider his recent letter to Yukoners upset by his decision to support the government’s omnibus budget bill.

He doesn’t bother to try to defend the chief objection to the bill, which has since become law – namely, that it makes many controversial changes that have little bearing on the budget, from gutting the Fisheries Act to allowing the government to overturn National Energy Board decisions.

Tellingly, Leef never mentions any of these non-budgetary changes in his letter. It’s hard to defend what’s indefensible, so he doesn’t try.

Leef also makes an assertion that’s deeply misleading. He claims that “there were hundreds of hours and hundreds of individuals consulted” on the federal budget.

That may be true. A handful of federal ministers visited Whitehorse and, in between cheque-cutting ceremonies, announced they were staging “pre-budget consultations.”

But the public never learned what was discussed at these meetings with local bigwigs. It was certainly never publicly disclosed that the Conservatives planned to stuff the budget bill full of major policy changes, amending some 70 laws. It’s dishonest of Leef to suggest otherwise.

So much for being the Yukon’s man in Ottawa. Instead, it’s clear that Leef is Ottawa’s man in the territory.

Contrast Leef’s behaviour with that of his predecessor, the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell. He, too, had to defend unpopular decisions made by his party, in the case of its support for the federal gun registry. But Bagnell, a longtime critic of the registry, never pretended to like it.

Bagnell once defied a whipped vote to support the registry. He paid a price, of losing his chair of his party’s rural caucus.

Faced with another whipped vote, Bagnell relented and helped prop up the registry. If he hadn’t, he would have been ejected from his party.

Conservatives later seized on this as evidence that Bagnell had abandoned his constituents. He should have stood by his principles, the argument went.

Good luck finding a Conservative who will say the same thing about Leef now. But maybe they should.

Stephen Harper once condemned the Liberals for slipping unrelated measures into their budget bills. But he adopted the practice himself as leader of minority governments. Then, at least, it served a tactical purpose: opposition parties needed to choose between supporting the budget or triggering an election.

No similar rationale is apparent now. The Conservatives enjoy a majority, and so are free to pass what laws they see fit.

In opposition, Conservatives rightfully deplored such behaviour as arrogant, out-of-touch and heavy-handed. Sadly, the governing party has since become all those things. And their supporters have let them.

The government’s hubris in ramming through the omnibus budget was enough to even make some Conservative MPs uncomfortable. David Wilks, a backbencher for Kootenay-Columbia, told voters he’d protest the budget if a dozen other Conservative MPs joined him. But he quickly backed down once these comments became public, after presumably receiving a sound spanking by the prime minister’s staffers.

Parliamentarians – including those, like Leef, who sit on government’s back bench – were once expected to scrutinize the spending of public funds. Not any more.

Instead, Leef brags in his letter about how much money Ottawa has showered on the territory. Federal transfers to the territory have grown by $300 million over the past five years, his letter notes.

That really says it all, doesn’t it? Leef isn’t in office to stand up for what’s right. He’s Ottawa’s bagman.

And let’s be honest: that’s why many Yukoners voted for him. That’s why it’s difficult for some of us to summon too much outrage over his support of the budget.

But let’s be generous for a moment and assume that Leef, like Wilks, had reservations about the omnibus budget bill. As it stands, voting against the bill would likely have been an act of political suicide.

Bucking your party’s position on a largely symbolic issue, like the gun registry, is one thing. Voting against the budget is another. And the Conservatives have exercised far greater control over their MPs than the Liberals did.

There’s no question that Leef would have been expelled from the Conservative party. He’d also run the risk of alienating party faithful, without being able to count on many opposition supporters to vote for him next election.

So while Leef’s support of the budget is completely unprincipled, it’s also completely rational. He’s just playing by the rules.

To fix the problem, you can’t just change the man. You’ll have to change the system.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has proposed one fix that would give MPs greater leeway. Currently, party leaders sign the nomination papers for individual candidates. She’d move this power back into the hands of riding associations.

That would give MPs like Leef more power to speak their minds, with less fear of reprisal from their respective leaders. It’s a modest change, and far more plausible than wholesale reform to Canada’s electoral rules. But it’s still unlikely to happen, thanks to resistance from the leaders of the big parties.

Still, it could, if supporters of all parties make a big enough fuss. This seems to be a more productive goal than simply blaming a sock puppet for its lack of a spine.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate education advocates and volunteers help to sort and distribute Christmas hamper grocery boxes outside Elijah Smith Elementary School on Feb. 23. (Rebecca Bradford Andrew/Submitted)
First Nation Education Directorate begins Christmas hamper program

Pick-ups for hampers are scheduled at local schools

Cyrine Candido, cashier, right, wipes down the new plexi-glass dividers at Superstore on March 28, before it was commonplace for them to wear masks. The Yukon government is relaunching the Yukon Essential Workers Income Support Program as the second wave of COVID-19 begins to take place in the territory. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Essential Workers Income Support Program extended to 32 weeks

More than 100 businesses in the territory applied for the first phase of the program

City of Whitehorse staff will report back to city council members in three months, detailing where efforts are with the city’s wildfire risk reduction strategy and action plan for 2021 to 2024. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council adopts wildfire risk reduction plan

Staff will report on progress in three months


Wyatt’s World for Nov. 25, 2020

Ivan, centre, and Tennette Dechkoff, right, stop to chat with a friend on Main Street in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. Starting Dec. 1 masks will be mandatory in public spaces across the Yukon in order to help curb the spread of COVID-19. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Masks mandatory in public places starting on Dec. 1

“The safe six has just got a plus one,” Silver said.

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Keith Lay speaks at a city council meeting on Dec. 4, 2017. Lay provided the lone submission to council on the city’s proposed $33 million capital spending plan for 2021 on Nov. 23, taking issue with a number of projects outlined. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Resident raises issues with city’s capital budget

Council to vote on budget in December

Beatrice Lorne was always remembered by gold rush veterans as the ‘Klondike Nightingale’. (Yukon Archives/Maggies Museum Collection)
History Hunter: Beatrice Lorne — The ‘Klondike Nightingale’

In June of 1929, 11 years after the end of the First… Continue reading

Samson Hartland is the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during its annual general meeting held virtually on Nov. 17. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Yukon Chamber of Mines elects new board

The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during… Continue reading

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and — unsurprisingly — hospital visitations were down. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Annual report says COVID-19 had a large impact visitation numbers at Whitehorse General

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

City council was closed to public on March 23 due to gathering rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The council is now hoping there will be ways to improve access for residents to directly address council, even if it’s a virtual connection. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Solution sought to allow for more public presentations with council

Teleconference or video may provide opportunities, Roddick says

Most Read