Dennis Fentie must have delivered one hell of a speech to the Yukon Party’s annual meeting on Saturday.
With it, he managed to sway Al Falle, a former MLA and party heavyweight in Lake Laberge, who wanted to trigger a leadership election to turf Fentie.
In the span of about 20 minutes, Fentie persuaded Falle to stand down.
“I’ve listened to Dennis Fentie for quite a few years, and I can tell you it was the best speech I’ve heard from that man. It was honest. It was sincere. And he sounded genuine,” said Falle.
“Dennis Fentie came up a lot in my standing. I didn’t think he had it in him.”
The meeting was a closed-door affair. But, by its end, Falle would support the idea of his MLA, Brad Cathers, returning to Fentie’s fold, after having noisily resigned from cabinet and caucus last autumn.
At the time, Cathers alleged Fentie lied to the public about plans to sell off Yukon Energy’s assets to Alberta-based ATCO, then asked Cathers to do the same. Instead, Cathers denounced the premier and crossed the floor to sit as an independent, although he remains a Yukon Party member.
Fentie “never admitted to lying” during his speech, said Falle. But “he took full responsibility” for what happened, offered Cathers a humble apology and asked that he return to the government side of the House.
Fentie went on to appeal to the greater good, hitting hard on the ruling party’s assertions that it injected life into a moribund territorial economy and warning the consequences would be dire if the opposition seized power.
“It was a real wing-dinger,” said Falle. “He actually acted and sounded like a leader, not a tin-pot dictator.
“I don’t know who wrote it. Maybe it was him. Whoever it was, it was right on. He definitely opened up a lot of doors.”
Falle was equally surprised by Fentie’s offer to voluntarily trigger a leadership election in early 2011. “I nearly fell out of my chair,” he said.
Fentie made the case that he still has work to do until that time, and that it would be better for the infighting-wracked party to have the review set by the premier himself, rather than by those calling for his ouster. To Falle, this sounded reasonable.
Cathers wasn’t so easily won over. He isn’t ready to return to the fold yet.
“There’s a possibility this is a wake-up call for the premier. He may have realized that even party members want to see a change in the way things are done. I have my doubts about that, but I want to respond graciously to the olive branch,” he said.
“The issue has never been my personal feelings. It’s always been about some concerns about how the business of government was being conducted.”
Cathers’ constituents in Lake Laberge have largely supported their MLA’s decision and sent delegates to the annual meeting that supported triggering a leadership election.
They weren’t alone, said Cathers.
“We were surprised by the number of party members across the Yukon who were not behind the premier and the extent of the dissatisfaction that does exist.”
But, in the end, delegates nixed a leadership race. More than half voted against a review.
The number of delegates who supported a leadership race remains unclear: the vote was conducted by secret ballot and the counting stops as soon as a simple majority is reached.
Many members expressed concern the party’s standings had been harmed by the public feud underway. This helps explain why Cathers would later put a heavy emphasis on party unity and tone down his criticism of the premier.
“All of us, regardless of our opinion on the leadership question, support the principles and policies of the Yukon Party and want to see the party carry forward and see what’s best for the party and the territory,” he said.
Fentie hasn’t indicated whether he’ll run in next year’s leadership election. And it remains to be seen whether any elected Yukon Party members choose to challenge Fentie for the premier’s seat.
Cathers has already ruled himself out. And the remaining Yukon Party members have stood by Fentie through the ATCO scandal.
Cathers, for one, says he has “some suspicions” about who would run for the leadership, “but I’ll leave it to those people to announce.”
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