When the 33rd legislative assembly dissolved, Sandy Silver was the sole Liberal member of the third party in the house. He had a caucus staff of one and a half helping him out. With that limited support squad he had to hold a government accountable on subjects ranging from mining to energy, education to health care.
Fast forward several months and he is now Premier Sandy Silver and finds himself at the helm of a caucus of eleven, a cabinet of seven, and a staff that likely numbers in the dozens — almost all of whom are new to the job. He oversees a government with annual expenditures that exceed a billion dollars, and has over 5,000 employees spread over a dozen or so departments and Crown corporations.
By any measure this change has been a big promotion and, I suspect, quite the learning curve for the member from the Klondike.
Silver has been the subject to criticism by the Yukon Party opposition for delaying the return of the legislature somewhat longer than has historically been the norm. And this past week the government issued a special warrant allowing itself to continue spending money until a full budget is presented and debated — a move that also drew a rebuke from the official Opposition.
Silver has justified his slow start to governing on the basis that he does not want to rush into the job and that he and his party want to take their time getting priorities in order before convening the house. As far as the budget goes, he says he wants a “full picture” of the cost of running the government.
It is true that Silver was critical of the use of special warrants when he sat in the opposition, and that the recent one his government issued — $427 million to fund government operations through the end of June — was the biggest in history. And maybe, for some voters, this about-face is that first windshield crack on the shiny new car.
That being said, my sense is that the now-opposition Yukon Party may overplaying its hand, criticizing Silver for doing things the Yukon Party was doing the day before yesterday. No, the public doesn’t like to see new governments do things they criticized when they were in opposition. But they are also weary of parties who were recently in government discovering a new zeal for the sanctity of question period.
Opposition member Brad Cathers scoffed at the notion that Silver needed almost half a year before facing the legislature and accused him of a “fear of question period.”
A legislative session doesn’t just mean question period. It also means introducing bills and pursuing a legislative agenda. Given the premier’s rapid rise from relative political insignificance it is completely believable that the Liberals are just not ready to do that and are not simply shirking their responsibility to answer questions.
Cathers said that in 2011, after winning an October election, the Yukon Party was able to present a supplementary budget despite the fact that only two cabinet members were returned to office.
That is not really analogous. That Yukon Party government hadn’t been a third party mere months earlier. While that election did result in significant turnover, two returning cabinet members is better than none, and Cathers’ argument ignores the fact that there would have been a significant amount of continuity in party staff after that election. More importantly, the job of premier did not change hands after the election of 2011 — Darrel Pasloski held it since the previous April.
Cathers also pointed to his having to defend a departmental budget he didn’t prepare back in 2005 with mere hours of preparation time. But preparing oneself to defend a policy and actually crafting a budget — among the many other things that the government is up to these days — are not the same thing.
Frankly, I don’t think Cathers or the opposition need to worry. There will be several more years of legislative sittings before we all head back to the polls and weigh in on the Silver government. The opposition will have plenty of opportunities to hold the government to account on every subject they desire.
The recent special warrant was hardly stacked full of spending goodies, tax cuts, or drastic changes in the direction of government. It was not rolled out in a manner designed to curry favour with a voting electorate, which is still four or five years away from its next trip to the polls. And since Silver has assumed office we have not been treated to a succession of executive changes that the opposition has been left unable able to question as they occur. Keith Halliday characterized the first months of Silver’s government as “eerily quiet” and I concur.
If the premier was implementing major changes to government by way of executive order, and was circumventing legislative processes, there would be more merit to the opposition’s criticisms. But so far we have been treated to a status-quo government.
The legislature will return soon. Giving the new government some time to get itself sorted is hardly too much to ask and is hardly a threat to our democracy.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.