Yukon’s Liberals must walk a fine line if they want to reverse ballot box struggles

Since the dawn of modern, partisan territorial elections back in 1978, the Yukon Liberal Party has been the least successful of the three main parties.

It has not always been easy being Liberal in Yukon territorial politics.

Since the dawn of modern, partisan territorial elections back in 1978, the Yukon Liberal Party has been the least successful of the three main parties.

The Yukon Party, and its predecessor the Yukon Progressive Conservative Party, has been the winningest territorial political party by far, carrying six elections (seven if you look at popular vote, not just seats won) and holding power for a combined time period exceeding 24 years. The NDP come in second, having won three elections and holding power for about 11 years in total.

The Yukon Liberals have won only once — the territorial election of 2000 when the Pat Duncan-led party defeated the NDP government of Piers Macdonald. Victory was short-lived, however, and the party managed to hold power for only two and a half years before calling an early election. By that time infighting had led a good chunk of the party’s caucus to leave the party, reducing it to minority status.

So why do the Liberals have such a hard time?

I don’t believe that the Liberal “brand” is irremediably tainted in the Yukon in the way it is in provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan where voters recoil from association with the label and would rather play a weird game of ideological leapfrog than settle for a party flying the same banner as the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Sure, there are people everywhere in this country who want to tell you how much they don’t like Liberals, but we have had a federal Liberal MP for about 12 of the past 16 years (the personal popularity of Larry Bagnell admittedly being an important factor in that success).

The territorial Liberals do lack the fundraising support that the other two parties have and that might be part of the problem. Even in the election of 2006 — where the Liberals did relatively well, garnering five seats, finishing second and winning more than a third of the popular vote — they were a distant third in fundraising. In 2015, the most recent data we have, the Liberals raised only $20,275, which paled in comparison to the amounts raised by the Yukon Party and the NDP — $69,615 and $71,101.25 respectively.

But I think much of the reason simply lies in the narrow political spectrum we have in the Yukon. Our stable and growing federal transfers have meant that governments don’t have to make the kind of hard ideological choices that make people beg for the middle-of-the-road approach that Liberals tend to offer federally and in other jurisdictions.

We have now had an ostensibly conservative government for almost a decade and a half. During that time we’ve seen the size of government and the civil service explode. Tax relief has been relatively modest — about a percentage point off each bracket while the thresholds of each bracket have barely kept pace with growing incomes. While there are certainly pockets of neglect in terms of underfunded areas of social spending, it would be hard to make the case that the Yukon Party has pursued a harsh austerity agenda in order to give its wealthy buddies large tax breaks.

The battleground in territorial politics here in the Yukon, rather than being about the relative size of government as it is in most other places in the western world, is primarily about resource development — how much of it do we want, where, and under what conditions. But here too the Liberals can find themselves caught in the middle of a relatively small spectrum.

The Yukon Party carries the pro-development torch in the territory, but even under its leadership the scale of resource development is constrained by various external factors. Projects need to be economically viable to proceed and here in the Yukon — far from the markets of the south and with higher costs — that often isn’t the case. And even if a project is viable there are First Nations that must be consulted with and various regulatory hoops like YESAB that projects need to go through. We’re hardly going gangbusters with development these days.

And if you’re the type of person who thinks what we’re doing is already too much and you would prefer to leave the territory in its natural, unspoiled state, chances are you’ll naturally find yourself more at home with the Yukon’s NDP. On a subject where voters are often for or against, it will be interesting to see how much constituency there is for the Liberal Party’s “yes to oil and gas in Eagle Plains, no to fracking in the Liard Basin” this election. I’m skeptical.

I think the Liberals are probably on the right track by placing their focus on management and tone. After all, government isn’t just about plotting an ideological course. It is about the day-to-day steering of projects and the maintenance of the various relationships with other levels of government. And here you can find some grumbling about the Yukon Party on issues like the handling of the Whistle Bend continuing care facility, and its aggressive approach to Peel litigation.

And the Liberals will need to hive away some votes from the Yukon Party to win. They can’t win by competing for a share of the same voter pool as the NDP.

Dissatisfaction with the Yukon Party appears to have been key to the Liberal victory in 2000. That election was a historic low point for the Yukon Party. It won only 24 per cent of the vote — the only time in almost 40 years of modern elections when the Yukon Party received less than 30 per cent of the vote and one of only two times that it received less than 35 per cent.

Whether “more of pretty much the same but managed better” can be a winning campaign message remains to be seen. But I think it is as good a strategy as any for a party trying to make an electoral breakthrough in a territory where it has had little success in the past.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.