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On the auditor general’s most wanted list

Brad Cathers is lucky to have a government job.

Brad Cathers is lucky to have a government job.

Imagine if he was private-sector executive and stunned his business partners on a major project by pulling a last-minute U-turn, like he did on the $26 million affordable housing initiative. The CEO would be throwing Blackberries and screaming into the speakerphone for as long as it took HR to draft a press release that Cathers was retiring to spend more time with his family.

Just six months ago, Cathers announced that 22 Yukon businesses and housing groups had applied to participate in the affordable housing program. “This initiative encourages partnerships that work together to create additional affordable housing in the territory,” said Cathers proudly of his new program.

And imagine how much work went into getting the affordable housing program to the point where it could be announced. All those hours of meetings with Cathers and his cabinet colleagues, inter-departmental briefings and communications strategy sessions. It probably went up and down the Yukon government flagpole so often that every arm from the Yukon Housing Corporation to management board got sore saluting it.

The 22 Yukon organizations that applied to participate also worked hard. They did their due diligence on the program, got their banks and lawyers involved, and put together comprehensive business proposals.

Six more months of hard work later, Cathers suddenly grabs the program along with its attendant bureaucrats and private sector partners and throws them under a passing snowmobile driven by the local realtors lobby.

The abruptness of Cathers’ move reminds me of the meeting scene in The Grand Budapest Hotel where Willem Defoe suddenly grabs Jeff Goldblum’s cat and throws it out the window.

Reasonable people can debate whether government support for affordable housing is good policy or not. But if you believed it was a good idea six months ago, presumably as Cathers did when he put out that news release last Christmas, then you still would today.

The facts on the ground haven’t changed much. There was no big, new global crisis. No government affordable housing scheme caused a financial disaster in another jurisdiction in the last six months. The Yukon still has about ten thousand households. Long-term population forecasts and interest rates are about the same. The economy isn’t much different compared to December 2013. Transfer payments are still growing and the mining industry is still fluctuating as global markets do their thing.

Everyone also knew six months ago or more that the scheme would mean more competition for existing landlords, and that they would be likely to protest. Everyone also knew that, in a place with roughly 10,000 households and therefore housing units, that another 100 or so rental units would not swamp the market (that’s a rough estimate, with $26 million divided by a guestimated $300,000 per unit).

So what happened?

Did Cathers always believe the initiative was a bad idea, and sat through meetings with his staff thinking “Some time I should really tell these people I’m going to kill their program?”

Or did he think it was a good idea, but panicked when the entirely predictable protest by existing landlords happened? Or did he not understand the program he had signed off on?

This kind of bad management has real costs, although fortunately for Cathers they are hard to measure. How much time and money did the Yukon government waste developing this program? How many extra fees do quality contractors build into their government bids to make up for this kind of risk and hassle?

Even more importantly, how much time and money did the 22 Yukon organizations spend? They’ll never see that money again. This is the most fundamentally appalling thing about Cathers’ U-turn. These are not abstract and distant entities, but real Yukoners with payrolls to meet.

This is why I noted above that Cathers is fortunate he doesn’t work in the private sector. In the accountability-free zone that is our political system, his reward for all this will be a gold-plated politician pension guaranteed by the federal taxpayer.

One almost wishes Sam Steele would re-materialize and sentence Cathers to a winter of chopping wood for those 22 Yukon businesses and housing charities.

That won’t happen, of course. Cathers has already survived being both minister of health and minister of public works in the long-running Watson Lake and Dawson hospital debacle. If the auditor general had a “most wanted” list, Cathers would be on it.

It makes you wonder what could be next. Can you think of a big-budget project with long lead times and predictable opposition? Something people could spend millions of dollars on before a minister gets nervous and pulls the rug out from under them?

The people running the Casino Mine project and Yukon Energy’s new hydro station must be hoping that Cathers is far away by the time their projects get to cabinet.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith