The Fireweed Party and the essentials of daily life

This is the third installment of the platform of the mythical “Fireweed Party,” which I have put together after chatting with various veterans of Yukon politics about what their dream party might offer to voters.

This is the third installment of the platform of the mythical “Fireweed Party,” which I have put together after chatting with various veterans of Yukon politics about what their dream party might offer to voters.

The theme of the Fireweed platform is making the Yukon the top choice in Canada for people to live, work, start a business and raise a family. This week we’ll look at some of the essentials to achieve this: housing, healthcare, education and energy.

The government can hire as many fancy consultants as it wants to talk about jobs and economic growth, but it won’t make much difference if the Yukon is less attractive on these essentials than the places we compete with for people and capital.

Sadly, previous governments have taken their eyes off the ball on these basic tasks of government. We are 37,000 people in an area the size of France and somehow managed to have a land shortage a few years ago that caused the cost of housing to skyrocket. Carl Rumscheidt of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce was recently quoted in the papers on how many employers find prospective employees unwilling to re-locate to the Yukon after they discover how difficult it is to find quality, affordable housing. This is not good.

Yukon healthcare professionals are sounding the alarm about bad decision-making at the hospital recently, as you may have seen in the paper. On education, even though we spend more per student than almost anywhere else on the planet, our educational outcomes continue to disappoint many students and parents. Our energy prices are slated to rise again and, while cheaper than Iqaluit, they are already quite a bit more expensive than, say, Norway or BC.

We need to change our ambitions in these important areas. We should not settle for being around average, or not as bad as the most lackadaisically run province. We should shoot to be the best in Canada.

Promise one: On housing, this means that the Fireweed Party would promise to have a land bank that always had a variety of cheap lots for people to purchase and build houses on. This would include small lots for small units close to downtown. This would mean reforming how the Yukon government develops and sells lots. But the benefit would be that in the long run, the cost of housing would revert to the actual cost of land and a house. This makes sense.

One would also hope to support First Nations in developing more housing on their land, working with municipalities to reform their rules that drive up the cost of housing, and ever-rising property taxes. But since the Yukon government doesn’t control these things, you couldn’t commit to anything in a platform. But you could work on them once in office.

Promise two: Hire ten more front-line health care workers and ask the board of the hospital to resign and re-apply for their jobs. One Yukon veteran once told me that there are many dumber things a politician can do than hire some more nurses. As for the board, some members are excellent. Some are former political campaign managers and patronage appointees. The hospital is too important to be run by a board of friends of the government of the day. It needs to be strong, independent and composed of experienced Yukoners from business, labour, First Nations and the health care sector.

Promise three: On education, the Fireweed Party would cut the headquarters of the Department of Education in half, transferring those jobs back to schools. A deputy minister once remarked to me, only half in jest, that the Department of Education should have just two employees: a deputy minister for policy, and a payroll clerk to pay the teachers. It would also decentralize many powers held by superintendents today to the schools, in a style similar to Edmonton’s school-based management approach. Edmonton’s reforms in this area are highlighted internationally by organizations such as the World Bank, which are supporting school improvement projects around the world based on the idea.

We should steal the best of these ideas.

While not a panacea, there is a lot to be said for giving greater control over budgets and programs to the people on the ground with our children. Having watched at least three major strategic planning exercises at the Department of Education waste a lot of time and money in the last 15 years with minimal benefits for students, I think it is worth shifting authority from the bureaucracy to the schools.

Promise four: On energy, I continue to fume every time I pay my oil bill while Yukon Energy has surplus electricity pouring through the dam. We may someday have another big hydro facility like Schwatka or Aishihik providing plentiful and cheap electricity, but this is likely decades away. In the meantime, the Yukon government should take $10 million of its capital budget each year and ask First Nations development corporations and other investors to come forward with renewable energy proposals.

This would be five projects over the life of the next legislature.

Proponents would offer to sell power cheaply to the grid for 25 years, in return for a $10 million up-front subsidy from the government. From a ratepayer point of view, the constant addition of cheap power to the grid would keep rates down and let us transition more houses to heat pumps and non-fossil-fuel heat sources.

As for environmental policy, this would probably also be the Yukon’s biggest single opportunity to cut carbon emissions. Other parties could fill up their platforms with glossy photos of hikers and moose, but if they aren’t dealing with carbon emissions from heating fuel they are just scratching the surface.

Some free-market purists might object that this is subsidizing electricity. True enough, but better to spend the $10 million on green power than hiring more policy analysts or widening highways that are only busy 20 minutes a day.

There, that’s housing, healthcare, education and energy solved, albeit in a fantasy world by a fantasy political party. Tune in next week, when we’ll dream about the rest of the Fireweed platform.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist.