Sandy Silver’s great gamble

Probably the truest words spoken during last weekend’s swearing-in of Yukon’s new Liberal cabinet came from the mouth of Commissioner Doug Phillips, himself a former MLA.

Probably the truest words spoken during last weekend’s swearing-in of Yukon’s new Liberal cabinet came from the mouth of Commissioner Doug Phillips, himself a former MLA.

“In many ways,” Phillips said, “this will be the best day of your career.”

In other words, the new ministers get to bask in the glow of Day One, to digest the magnitude of their new jobs, before the honeymoon’s inevitable end. There were some emotional looks on the faces of Premier Sandy Silver’s new ministers as they waited to be sworn in.

Silver gets to enjoy the Christmas break with the satisfaction of winning an election, becoming premier and cruising into the holidays having done nothing to piss anybody off. Yet.

Happy holidays, indeed.

We don’t have a real picture of what Silver’s newly-minted Liberal government has planned, at least until the speech from the throne, which presumably will take place some time in early January, when the legislature meets for an abridged first session.

Silver has furthermore bought himself a great deal of legislative wiggle room, having run on a platform that explicitly ruled out “grandiose promises.” This was both a promise of realism and a convenient way to avoid being pinned down on certain policy specifics. You cannot, after all, be accused of breaking campaign promises you never made.

But the Liberals promised a lot of relatively little things: a permanent moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, fixed election dates, small-business tax cuts, energy retrofits and so on. And by pledging to meet with Yukon’s chiefs shortly after taking office and rebuilding the Yukon Forum, Silver effectively implied a major reset in government-to-government relationships with First Nations. That is an ambitious and important objective.

And moreover, Yukoners did what Canadian voters often do when a right-of-centre government has been ensconced in power for several terms: they saw the Liberals as the vessel for all their not-Yukon Party and not-NDP hopes in the belief that moderation could dial down ideological hostility. It sure worked for Justin Trudeau.

About that. Trudeau is in the midst of his first mensis horribilis. And it’s not been pretty.

His explicit campaign pledge to eliminate first-past-the-post voting has collapsed into a self-inflicted gong show. Hours of committee work, a 400-page report, and a national tour by Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef all seem to have been wasted as the Liberals stumble through one of the most hamfisted walk-backs in recent memory.

All this comes after the Trudeau government’s decision to approve the contentious (to say the least) Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines was received by many as betrayal of his promises to be a leader on climate change and on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Trudeau’s experience offers a cautionary tale for Silver’s government: reconciliation and environmental protection cannot become afterthoughts without risking an enormous political backlash. At the same time, the Liberals cannot afford to alienate the business community by failing to implement promised business tax cuts or by botching the implementation of carbon pricing, which promises to be a delicate endeavour. Such is the knife edge a centrist party must walk.

We live in a time when liberalism — in large part because of its own failings — finds itself under sustained assault by extremism. Fiscal austerity, aloof bureaucracy, and the frustrating and evasive nonsense of modern political communications have helped sow the seeds of today’s backlash politics.

For left-wing and right-wing parties this can mean the temptation to pander to the fringe — see, for example, the shameless Trump-aping antics of certain federal Conservative Party leadership aspirants.

In the Yukon, we’re lucky to have diverse politics that do not, for the most part, descend into the hyper-partisan madness we’ve seen in many other places. But that will not necessarily always be true.

Sandy Silver’s Liberal government will have to tread carefully over the next years. Silver ran as a people pleaser, and tried to offer a pan-ideological appeal to voters. The big tent is a classic Liberal strategy, but it’s one fraught with risk. If you fail, the tent can clear out in a hurry.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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