Political life, on the outside

It’s difficult for Patrick Michael to pick the most interesting government from the Yukon’s partisan history.

It’s difficult for Patrick Michael to pick the most interesting government from the Yukon’s partisan history.

As clerk of the legislative assembly Michael has seen them all. Literally.

First there was the Pearson administration of 1979. Then Phelps, briefly, and then Penikett for two terms.

Penikett lost to Ostashek, who lost to McDonald, who lost to Duncan, who lost to Fentie.

Michael has seen all of them come and all of them go, except of course for the current Yukon Party government, which just won its second mandate.

But he doesn’t have a favourite — professionally speaking, that is.

“They’re all my favourite,” Michael, 55, said with a grin in an interview Thursday.

“You can’t get an answer out of me on that one.”

All right. Which was most interesting?

“The Pearson one at the start is fascinating because of what we went through, starting out with the first house elected with party politics,” he said.

“During that term, very shortly into it, we get responsible government and we go through the growing pains of that, the learning process.”

But the governments of Tony Penikett and John Ostashek and Piers McDonald were equally “fascinating” in their own way, he said.

Now that the territorial government has attained some stability with Premier Dennis Fentie’s renewed majority, Michael is taking the opportunity to do something he’s been thinking about for awhile.

Retire.

“Internally, I know it’s the right time to leave,” Michael said, leaning back in his chair in his downstairs office in the Yukon legislature.

“There is a timing in assemblies where it wouldn’t be fair to leave.

“If I sat out three more years and then gave notice, that probably wouldn’t feel like it was ethically the right thing to do, whereas here we’ve come out of an election.

“I wasn’t hoping for anything about results, but the reality is we’ve got a returning government for the first time in ages.

“We’ve got 14 incumbents in our house. We’ve probably got a returning Speaker — logically it would seem to make sense.”

Michael works in the basement. With him leaving, it’s like the Yukon government is losing the ballast that keeps the boat from listing.

He’s been in the same job for 28 years — not just the same government or the same corporation, but the same job, which makes him the longest-serving legislative clerk of any assembly in Canada.

“There is a stability to the institution and I’m not God’s gift to anybody, but it has got to be tough for an institution when you’ve got somebody like me who has been sitting there for 28 years.

“I’m a fixture. I’m that piece of furniture in the corner that was always there.”

Michael was first assigned to his post in October 1979, less than three weeks before the landmark territorial election that brought party politics to the Yukon.

He’s been there ever since.

It was Michael who wrote scripts for Sam Johnston, the first First Nations Speaker of any legislature in Canada. Michael has written scripts for every Speaker since.

And he collaborated with former commissioner Doug Bell to get legislation passed, when Ottawa was reluctant to give Yukon the rein it had been promised.

Michael can name ministers, Speakers, First Nations members, bills before the house and the precise dates they passed, with nothing more than a glance at the ceiling above the steel rims of his glasses.

It is this encyclopedic knowledge of almost three decades of political history that the Yukon can ill afford to lose.

He even helped write the standing orders for the territory’s legislative assembly.

But Michael’s original foray into politics happened not in the Yukon, but Alberta.

In the mid-1970s Michael was working on a Master’s degree in history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton when he got a call from Bob Clark, then leader of Alberta’s Social Credit Party that was Official Opposition to Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives.

Clark, who met Michael as an intern in the Alberta legislature, asked him to be an executive assistant.

Michael took the job. But he never bought a party membership, and never considered himself a SoCred.

“To be successful in that business, you’ve got to have a fire in your gut,” Michael recalled.

“You have to believe. There’s almost a religious attachment to what you’re doing.

“I didn’t have it. And I didn’t have it for any party.”

What he did have was “a real interest in the institution.

“I loved being there. Demented as it may sound, I had this interest in the procedures of the place, how it ran.

“And yet, when you’re trying to draft questions for Question Period you have to see the government essentially as evil and your side as the side of the gods.

“I never got that. It wasn’t there.”

So where did Michael fall on the political spectrum?

And where is he now?

It’s hard to know. Religiously non-partisan in approach to his job, Michael won’t name one of the seven governments that he has served as the one he liked the best.

At the end of March 2007, it’s all over for him.

Michael will stick around through the inaugural sitting of the Yukon’s 32nd assembly, which will convene on November 23.

In the new year, the assembly will have to decide if it wants Michael’s replacement to also retain the duties of chief electoral officer.

“They’ve got to decide on that organizational level,” he said.

“I’m not out there as a champion for anybody, nor am I trying to undermine anybody.

“This is a chance for the assembly to decide what it wants.”

As for Michael, he’s going golfing.

And maybe he’ll do a little sports writing under his established pseudonym, Nat Stremy.

“This place has its own strength about it,” said Michael.

“It doesn’t need someone like me, caring deeply for it, to survive.”

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