In search of signs of the ‘Liberal surge’

We're already being treated to predictions of a "Liberal surge" this coming territorial election. This could well end up proving true, but the evidence on hand to support the claim is, at the moment, a little thin.

We’re already being treated to predictions of a “Liberal surge” this coming territorial election. This could well end up proving true, but the evidence on hand to support the claim is, at the moment, a little thin.

The claim was recently advanced by Richard Mostyn, who last week secured the Liberal nomination for Whitehorse West. (Mostyn’s name will be familiar to many readers, as he worked as a muckraking journalist for the News for many years.) As proof, Mostyn pointed to the dramatic uptick of party members in the riding: the current tally of 206 members in the riding nearly equals the number of votes the Liberals secured in 2011.

Having this many voters pinned down in the riding can only be a good thing for the Liberals. But victory in Whitehorse West remains far from a shoo-in for the Liberals, and it would probably be a mistake to assume that the riding stood as a representative sample of the territory.

To start, not every riding will see two popular candidates vying for the Liberal nomination, which is what Whitehorse West was treated to, with Mostyn vying against the well-known polio campaigner Ramesh Ferris. Mostyn also ran an especially dogged campaign, and probably banged on far more doors than your typical candidate. This all helps explain why parties like contested nomination battles. But these circumstances must be a little unusual.

What’s more, a Liberal win in Whitehorse West remains far from a sure thing, given that the seat is currently held by one of the territory’s more popular politicians, the Yukon Party’s Elaine Taylor. During the 2011 election she won 422 votes, which works out to nearly 60 per cent of the votes in her riding. Only NDP Leader Liz Hanson won a bigger slice of votes during the last election. So it’s entirely possible that the Liberals could see a sizeable boost in support in the riding at the expense of both the NDP and Yukon Party, yet still wind up being crushed by the Taylor juggernaut.

Then again, among the many unknowns at the moment is whether Taylor will even run. She declared her intentions to seek another term relatively late last time around, and it’s entirely possible she may decide, with her plum MLA’s pension already secured, she’d rather not run the risk of sitting in the Opposition benches next time around. Just how many sitting Yukon Party MLAs decide to take another crack at it will be another interesting thing to watch over the coming months.

There are other fuzzy signals that point towards growing Liberal support. One is the Liberals’ dominance during the past federal election. Just as the federal blow-out of Liberal support in 2011 probably did serious harm during the past territorial campaign, the formation of a Liberal majority government in Ottawa should help Sandy Silver’s team this time around – although it’s anybody’s guess by how much.

Then there are those two polls released earlier this year, which both showed the Yukon Liberals with a considerable lead over the territory’s other parties. But it’s important to remember that both polls involved small samples of a few hundred Yukoners, and both showed many voters remained undecided.

Maybe a better indicator to watch is which opposition party the government is more determined to attack. After all, if anyone has the resources to track the public mood, it’s the Yukon Party.

A recent report by the CBC’s Nancy Thomson declared that the Liberals were clearly viewed by Premier Darrell Pasloski as the bigger threat, judging by where he threw his punches in the legislature. Our own observations have found that Pasloski tends to whack both opposition parties during his replies, but one moment does stand out on April 14, when the premier responded to a question posed by the NDP’s Jan Stick over the operating costs of the contentious Whistle Bend continuing care centre by attacking Liberal Leader Sandy Silver.

“Let’s be very, very clear to Yukoners out there,” Pasloski said. “Both the Liberals and the NDP have stated that they would cancel this facility. The Liberal leader has gone even further to say that not only would he cancel Whistle Bend, but he would create long-term care facilities in the communities. He will say anything – make any promise – to get elected. There are only two outcomes to such a promise. One is to drive this territory into bankruptcy, or two is to just simply break his promise.”

It’s important to note that both opposition leaders have not, in fact, said they would cancel the facility, so this tirade is based on a falsehood. The nose-stretching nature of these accusations makes the premier seem a bit desperate. As for the decision to single out Silver? You could take it as a telling example, but it’s worth remembering that the Yukon Party issued a statement a few days earlier denouncing Silver’s comments about the continuing care centre (he had claimed, erroneously, that the structure would be pre-fabricated), so the premier may simply have been falling back on talking points for this subject that put Silver at the pointy end of the stick.

Another indicator to watch would be turncoats. In 2011, we saw several Liberal supporters defect for the Yukon Party, including Scott Kent and Doug Graham, who went on to become cabinet ministers. Now it appears the Liberals are re-absorbing some of their rightward flank, with the appearance of former Yukon Party members like Russ Hobbis and Ramesh Ferris as potential candidates. Rod Taylor, a former Yukon Party leadership candidate, stood as another example until he bowed out in February due to his plans to manage a business in Campbell River, B.C. And the enlisting of John Streicker, a former Whitehorse city councillor and Green Party federal candidate, should help siphon some votes from the left.

Thomson’s CBC piece also notes the appearance of another newcomer to the Liberal fold: Darren Parsons, the premier’s past campaign manager, who is supporting Silver this time around. You could take that as a telling example, too.

None of this amounts to anything more than circumstantial evidence. But, at the very least, it gives the Liberals an upbeat story to tell about their prospects of forming government.

You know what else would help them persuade voters? Some actual policy proposals.