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Leef blows in the wind

When a Yukon MP broke his word on a matter of symbolic importance a few years ago, he found himself on the receiving end of some tough criticism from an energetic rival named Ryan Leef.

When a Yukon MP broke his word on a matter of symbolic importance a few years ago, he found himself on the receiving end of some tough criticism from an energetic rival named Ryan Leef who ended up taking his job. Today, Leef finds himself similarly vulnerable to charges of putting the interests of his party ahead of his constituents. Expect this to play into the next federal election campaign, to be held sometime in the coming year.

The Liberals’ decision to whip votes to fight the abolition of the long-gun registry helped unseat Larry Bagnell, but Leef is in a pickle of his own making over calls for a federal inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. A year ago, he decided to break rank on the issue and support a federal inquiry. It was, he said, the “loud and clear” view of voters.

“The reality is, I’m not defying leadership,” he said. “I’m standing up for Yukon constituents.”

Now Leef finds himself busy trying to sell his government’s proposed alternative to a federal inquiry. The problem is, the so-called action plan announced by the government is actually a plan to do absolutely nothing new at all, beyond maintaining existing spending commitments.

That’s not how Leef frames things, of course. He has repeatedly insisted that a chunk of the money is “new,” even it’s actually a continuation of a spending package announced in 2010.

Pressed on the issue, Leef conceded that “people get confused” on such matters. Well, exactly: people are confused because of what Leef is telling them.

He went on to say, “I don’t think I implied that the budgets have been increased at this point or the capacity has been increased,” when that’s precisely what he’s done, repeatedly.

There are good reasons to think that an inquiry wouldn’t actually accomplish anything, given how the issue at hand has already been studied to death. But that doesn’t change the fact that Leef told voters he’d support one, and now sounds like he doesn’t. Nor does it change the fact that Leef is presenting his government’s commitments in a misleading fashion. In short, our MP isn’t being straight with voters.

None of this is quite as clear cut as the gun registry issue that helped fell Bagnell. In that case, Bagnell had long stated he personally opposed the registry, but, after being threatened with expulsion from his party if he didn’t vote with his party, fought its destruction. Crucially, Bagnell was up front with voters that he wasn’t voting as they wished, but asserted that the benefits of remaining with his party outweighed the risks of sitting as an independent.

Leef, meanwhile, hasn’t yet had to vote on an inquiry. Nor has he admitted to giving up on supporting one. He says he needs to chat with constituents about the government’s new plan, first. But, given that the new plan is not new, but is merely a recital of what is already being done, how many Yukoners who previously supported an inquiry will be convinced this is a reasonable alternative? This appears to be just another way to muddy the waters, in the hope that voters won’t follow what’s happening.

It should also be remembered that Leef’s support of the inquiry was fairly half-hearted - he said he only supported it if the provinces and territories helped pay for it. Still, Leef staked some credibility on this issue by sticking his neck out in the first place. Presumably, the idea was to show he’s able to think independently, and behave as something more than the prime minister’s sock puppet. So much for that.

Instead, we’re left with an MP who, like the party he represents, isn’t able to provide a straight answer to an important question. The prime minister, of course, has dismissed calls for an inquiry with the silly assertion that the disproportionate amount of violence that aboriginal women face is no “sociological phenomenon,” but merely a matter of locking up bad guys.

No wonder Marian Horne, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, is so upset. The former MLA for the right-leaning Yukon Party is now openly calling on First Nation residents to think twice before voting Conservative, in light of the government’s refusal to take the issue seriously.

It’s always hard to predict which issues will catch fire with voters, and it’s possible the inquiry schmozzle won’t peel away many votes from Leef. After all, many Yukoners who think an inquiry would do some good are probably unlikely to support Conservatives in the first place. But this issue could also harm Leef in a more general way, by casting him as a guy who says one thing and does another. If voters can’t trust Leef on this one issue, they may wonder, can they on others?

All this makes it that much harder for Leef to present himself as Yukon’s guy in Ottawa, rather than Ottawa’s guy in the Yukon.