by Liz Hanson
Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski tabled his first budget five years ago in 2011, with a forecast of a $80-million surplus. He touted strong Yukon Party economics and values. Five years later, as he stood in the legislative assembly, his surplus had dwindled down to $1.25 million – almost $79 million less than when he took office.
Unlike any provincial government in Canada, by grace of indexation, Yukon has seen our federal transfers grow by three to six per cent every year. Imagine: the base amount grew, and instead of building on Yukon’s surplus in anticipation of new demands, new programs or new opportunities to grow Yukon, the Yukon Party spent it all – and then some.
When the Yukon NDP caucus reviews the budget, we think about how it supports the creation of a fairer, more equal Yukon. We look at how it furthers the hope of all Yukon citizens for a robust, durable and local economy, resilient to the impact of the boom-and-bust cycle of commodity price swings on which it currently, unfortunately, depends.
This year’s Yukon budget does not speak to those aspirations. I had hoped that perhaps, after finally realizing the benefits of the Yukon NDP’s practice of visiting communities to listen to their hopes and aspirations for Yukon – to First Nation and local government representatives, small-business owners, industry, arts and cultural groups – that the Yukon Party’s high-profile community consultations would have netted some results.
I guess the difference is the objective.
New Democrats see community meetings as a way to engage with Yukon citizens – not to hold a photo opportunity or tick off a box on a long list. After almost 14 years as government, it is clear that the Yukon Party just doesn’t get it.
There’s no doubt that times are tough. I doubt that even the premier is able to fully believe his glossy spin. Conference Board of Canada statistics have again confirmed that Yukon’s gross domestic product has declined for a third straight year. The Yukon Party recession seems to be gaining steam.
The auditor general has pointed out time and again, this government has been characterized by a lack of strategic planning and ineffective implementation. Decisions have been repeatedly made on an ad hoc basis – not as part of a big-picture plan.
Over the years, the Yukon Party has made federal transfer money and the mining industry the sole pillars of Yukon’s economy. As the premier likes to say, “So goes mining, so goes Yukon.” Yukon’s last open mine, at Minto, is slated to begin winding down operations this summer and close early next year. Yukon’s population, alone among the rest of Canada, has declined.
Yukon needs a more diverse economy, and this budget shows no indication that the Yukon Party has a plan to prevent another recession caused by our choice to put all our fiscal eggs in the resource-extraction basket.
The government has also fumbled the chance to effectively work with First Nation governments’ arm’s-length development corporations to help diversify Yukon’s economy.
The tourism industry is a clear example of this failure to lead. Several years ago the Tourism Industry Association asked the Yukon government for $2.5 million annually over two years to focus on domestic marketing because of the significant potential growth in that area. As part of that request, TIA also asked for a way to measure that investment’s success so that it could assess whether domestic marketing would be effective.
What they got instead was $1.8 million a year in global tourism funding without any evaluation criteria. This year, the tourism industry’s marketing programs will get $900,000 a year – not even $1.8 million – and the money still isn’t domestic and focused. That’s less money, and less targeting, of potential Canadian visitors. This limp-along approach is no way to support an important industry.
The Yukon Party has also failed Yukoners facing hard times. Despite the Yukon Party’s poverty reduction strategy, announced in 2010, there is still a critical lack of action to reduce income inequality and tackle access to affordable housing or provide mental health support services. Does the premier plan to tell voters that last year’s increase in food bank use is a sign that Yukon is better off thanks to the Yukon Party?
A 2014 report on government spending by the C.D. Howe Institute gave the Yukon government a failing grade for its ongoing mismanagement of Yukon’s finances, naming Yukon one of the worst jurisdictions in Canada for meeting its budgeting targets.
Yukon has the potential to do better. Together, we can tap that potential, but it’s going to take a vision for the future and the will to undertake multi-year budget planning.
Instead of a “build first, ask questions later” policy, Yukon needs a government that does the hard work of having discussions with experts and the community before making the big decisions.
Next year, if Yukoners place their trust in an NDP government to prepare that budget, that’s exactly what they’ll get.
Liz Hanson is leader of the NDP and MLA for Whitehorse Centre.