Yukon budget speeches, and other spring flights of fancy

As an author of Yukon historical fiction, I know new competition when I see it. The secret of historical fiction is to start with enough historically accurate facts to establish credibility, and then weave an entertaining fictional plot line around them.

As an author of Yukon historical fiction, I know new competition when I see it. The secret of historical fiction is to start with enough historically accurate facts to establish credibility, and then weave an entertaining fictional plot line around them.

The people who wrote last week’s Yukon budget speech are clearly students of the genre.

Their historical timeline goes like this: history begins a decade ago in a period of darkness and economic gnashing of teeth; in 2002 the Yukon Party is elected; in 2003 devolution comes into effect; in the 10 years that follow, the Yukon government’s budget doubles and mining companies spend over a billion dollars on exploration and open a bunch of mines.

The fantasy theme they weave through this timeline is that the Yukon Party was responsible for the good news.

When English teachers do historical fiction novels with their classes, one of the things they teach is critical thinking. Which parts of the book do you think are real, and which are fictional? How do you tell?

So let’s try this with the budget speech.

First, the mining industry. The industry has indeed boomed in the last decade. But consider these facts. In 2002, gold prices were under $300 per ounce. Now they are around $1,600 per ounce. Victoria Gold, one of the next mines likely to go into production, recently told its investors that its average forecast cash cost for gold would be around $615 per ounce.

You decide: is Victoria Gold viable due to the economic genius of the Yukon Party, or because if your cost is $615 it is easier to make money when gold prices are $1,600 than when they are $300?

Gold, copper and other mineral commodities are on a decade-long boom. It is likely that this is due more to the two billion people in India and China buying more stuff, rather than the Yukon Party’s economic prowess.

Next, the budget. Undoubtedly it annoys any actual conservatives left in the Yukon Party that the budget has doubled under their government. But it is true. However, this is because of federal decisions. Similar booms in transfer payments have happened in Nunavut and the N.W.T. It would have been more credible if the budget speech writers had put these words in the premier’s mouth: “Over the last decade, the federal government has kept writing us cheques with ever bigger numbers on them, and your Yukon Party cabinet has succeeded in cashing each and every one of them.”

If anyone is to get credit for territorial formula financing, it should be Erik Nielsen back in the 1980s.

Also, in the last two years, the percentage of Yukon government revenue coming from the feds actually went up. Only from 81.1 per cent to 81.3 per cent, but this trend still belies a lot of the rhetoric in the budget speech.

Now, devolution. It is true that the deal came into effect under the Yukon Party. But devolution took years to negotiate. The agreement is a large book in fine print. The NDP and Liberal governments all worked on it and even, if I recall correctly, John Ostashek’s Yukon Party government of the early 1990s.

The federal Parliament passed the devolution legislation in 2002, before the Yukon Party took power. Now that is impressive political leadership, if you can go back in time and pass laws before you are even elected! It’s not even historical fiction. Now we are talking about the fantasy genre.

In logic, this kind of thinking is called “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” This is Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” Less classically trained logicians also call it the “lucky T-shirt syndrome.” You know, your dad was wearing his lucky T-shirt when the Leafs won the Cup in 1967 and now he wears it to help them make the playoffs.

The budget speechwriters really missed an opportunity. They were thinking small. After the Yukon Party was elected, there was also a mining boom in Alaska. Why didn’t they take credit for that? Maybe the premier could run for governor?

Or what about the 20 per cent fall in malaria deaths worldwide since the Yukon Party was elected? Watch for that one in next year’s budget speech.

Historical fiction books usually have a preface or afterword explaining what was real and what was fiction. Unfortunately, the budget speech doesn’t come with a useful addendum like that. In fact, after speaking to various cabinet office inmates over the years, I have begun to think that they may believe their own talking points.

They still have a few years to live the dream. Then we shall see how voters like the story in the next 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.

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