Sometimes what is not in a political party’s platform is as important as the “announceables” you see in the news.
In four previous columns, we looked at some ideas a hypothetical new “Fireweed Party” might put in its platform if it was willing to shamelessly steal ideas from other parties, economists and political scientists in order to make the Yukon an even better place to live, work, start a business and raise a family.
Now, let’s look at what was not in the four previous columns.
In most walks of life, people prefer to under-promise and over-deliver. In politics it is the reverse.
This is where we see political leaders making often improbable claims to create jobs, tone down the antics in the legislature, and improve relations with First Nations, municipalities, labour and the resource industry.
These are all desirable things, but fall into the “it takes two to tango” category. Government doesn’t actually create private-sector jobs, except on short-term projects. It needs to create the conditions for the private sector to do so. Hence the Fireweed platform focused earlier on things like internet infrastructure, low taxes and housing costs.
One party can’t unilaterally promise to improve behaviour in the legislature. Just ask Barack Obama. Our system is adversarial in nature. Every five years we send a new batch of people into our legislatures, and the same thing always seems to happen to them.
Relations with other levels of government are similar. Our system pits one level of government against the other, with the courts as referee.
So the Fireweed platform would be honest with voters. You can’t promise to deliver any of the above. The best you can do is to promise to try your best to act in a professional and respectful manner in public life and diligently work on the items within your responsibility to make the Yukon better.
This of course is one reason the Fireweed Party would probably lose. It would be campaigning against parties promising to magically create jobs, turn Question Period into Answer Period, and replace intergovernmental lawsuits with collaborative workshops including breaks for yoga and reflective blogging.
Another thing that wouldn’t go in the platform—it is perhaps too geeky to mention it—would be stealing a few ideas from Sir Michael Barber and his “Deliverology” approach to actually getting things done in government. We seem to struggle delivering large projects or policy initiatives on time and with the promised benefits. The independent power producer policy languished for years in the bowels of government. Building new electricity generation seems to take forever. Projects like the new F.H. Collins turn into case studies of government bungling.
A Yukon version of Deliverology, simplified from what Barber developed under Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, would involve cabinet tasking a small team in the Executive Council Office to support them in identifying the top 20 government initiatives and their key milestones and then tracking them over time. The idea would be to improve transparency on how projects were doing, early enough that elected representatives could take action to get roadblocks out of the way.
The final category of things not in the platform are a set of large, hairy problems that defy easy short-term solutions. Earlier, I said the Fireweed Platform would not include vague and meaningless promises such as “committing to work with all stakeholders to address [insert name of issue here].”
Nonetheless, an incoming Fireweed premier would have a list of these issues to take a serious look at and, if it made sense once the facts were on the table, think about how to engage the right partners to start fixing them.
One of these big issues is poverty and homelessness, as demonstrated by the recent point-in-time homeless count in Whitehorse and the living wage study conducted by the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. Unfortunately, there is a huge range of opinion on how to improve the situation. Be wary of politicians with quick fixes such as increased spending on social housing or minimum wage hikes. Such steps might be useful or they might be counterproductive, but really solving complex problems will be hard work involving many different organizations.
Another big challenge is YESAB. I have spoken to a surprising number of knowledgeable Yukoners who share a broad point of view: YESAB’s broad architecture is well designed in creating a single environmental process in the Yukon (instead of a separate one for each government agency), but some operational and technical details are now causing significant pain for investors and costing Yukoners jobs without improving protection for the environment.
Again, this is an extremely complex issue. Not only can people not agree on the fix, many struggle to agree on what the problem is. And the number of stakeholders is mind-boggling.
Yukon College becoming a university is another complex issue. It would be truly wonderful to have an institution like the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and there are many historical examples of a university accelerating social and economic development in a city. But it is important to avoid the easy route of just changing “College” to “University” on the letterhead and declaring victory. A Fireweed government would be willing to invest more cash, but only if the institution developed a credible plan to further improve Yukon student outcomes and turn the university into an economic engine that attracted students to the territory.
I have a long list of other topics that a new premier might want to dig into. But a government that has too many priorities in effect has none.
So that wraps up the Fireweed Party series. We’ll see which, if any, of these ideas get picked up in the coming election.
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.