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Fentie throws officials into firing line

Premier Dennis Fentie is using bureaucrats as human shields in debates over the Peel Watershed and ATCO scandals, says Brad Cathers.

Premier Dennis Fentie is using bureaucrats as human shields in debates over the Peel Watershed and ATCO scandals, says Brad Cathers.

“You don’t throw officials out into the line of fire,” the MLA for Lake Laberge said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s just not fair to these people.”

“They didn’t choose to enter the political arena. They aren’t supposed to be used as human shields.”

Under the Westminster system of government, ministers make political decisions and officials carry these orders out. But that system has broken down under Fentie’s leadership, said Cathers, who resigned as Energy minister in August over Fentie’s talks with Alberta-based ATCO to privatize Yukon Energy.

Case in point: when Fentie held a press conference about the ATCO debacle over the summer, he made a few summary remarks and then left the room, leaving officials to answer questions for him.

Fentie also let officials, rather than himself, do the explaining when it became known that he had dressed down the deputy minister of Environment over a departmental paper that proposed keeping much of Yukon’s Peel Watershed pristine.

After Fentie called the deputy in a rage, the 22-page document was watered down to four pages.

When an e-mail that described this phone call was leaked and became a public embarrassment, it then became deputy minister Kelvin Leary’s job to explain, in a letter to the editor, the premier had done nothing wrong.

Yesterday, Fentie and Environment Minister Elaine Taylor continued to refer to Leary’s letter in the legislature as proof that no meddling had occurred. Fentie has never explained why he made the irate call.

But Fentie’s penchant for letting officials take the fall for his own actions doesn’t prevent him from accusing the opposition of attacking civil servants. So it went on Tuesday, when Gary McRobb asked for a full schedule of Fentie’s discussions with ATCO officials.

An abridged schedule of discussions was released by Energy officials this month, but it doesn’t include any discussions Fentie would have had with ATCO officials when Energy officials were not present.

In response, Fentie accused McRobb of “questioning whether officials were being factual.”

Fentie also insists it wasn’t his call to keep secret much of the paperwork connected to the ATCO scandal. There’s much documentation that has yet to be publicly released, and access-to-information requests have been denied on the grounds that the papers could harm ongoing negotiations.

This is a decision made by officials, said Fentie. At this, Cathers chuckles. The information is only being suppressed because it would embarrass the premier, he said.

Cathers has called for a judicial inquiry to clear the air over the ATCO scandal, but he also acknowledges such a thing is unlikely to happen.

An inquiry would require witnesses to swear under oath, and risk a perjury charge if found lying.

“If anyone thinks the premier’s going to take the stand, that’s unlikely,” said Cathers.

Fentie has dismissed this proposal as being too expensive. Instead, he wants to put off discussions on the ATCO affair until the legislature’s public accounts committee meets.

But the committee has a narrow mandate. It’s only supposed to examine whether government policy has been properly followed. This makes it a poor forum to look into Fentie’s privatization talks.

The committee is also unlikely to hear much criticism of Fentie, as government members enjoy majority control of it, said Cathers.

But containing the ATCO affair in the committee will succeed in doing one thing, which is to once again shift the spotlight off the premier and onto officials, who, having followed the premier’s orders, will now be asked to explain the mess.

“It’s just not fair to these people,” said Cathers.

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