Fentie warms up his election rhetoric

You don’t change horses in midstream. That’s a common reminder from incumbent governments in an election year.

You don’t change horses in midstream.

That’s a common reminder from incumbent governments in an election year.

Premier Dennis Fentie wasn’t deviating from the script during a speech he gave to the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

“Yukon is at a crossroads,” Fentie told about 60 people attending the luncheon.

“Election time is before us. All things considered, this is not the time for a change in direction. There is still a great deal of work to be done.”

Pulling on oft-cited themes, Fentie listed the “achievements” of his government, including the territory’s growing population, decreasing unemployment rate, a favourable investment climate, amicable First Nation relations and strong social programs.

The Yukon has changed since the Yukon Party came to power in November 2002, he said, taking a oblique shot at the previous Liberal government.

“Think back to the turmoil of yesterday’s Yukon, the high unemployment, the declining population, the falling property values, the lack of political leadership that took us there.

“Then take a look around at today’s Yukon. It’s quite a different place. Clearly, the Yukon has changed direction for the better.”

Fentie announced a few details about his government’s fourth budget, scheduled to be released March 30.

It’s worth $790 million. Within it, there’s more than $190 million in capital investment “to continue the stimulus,” he said.

“It is a budget that continues our balanced vision for our territory, with continued capital investment and a very strong social agenda.

“It will be a budget that leaves Yukon finances in healthy shape. Money will remain in the bank.”

The 2005 budget was worth $784 billion, but it ballooned to almost $820 million after the fall supplementary budget was released.

How much of the capital investment will be re-allocated from previous budgets, and how much of it will be new spending remains to be seen.

At the end of his address, Fentie shifted into campaign mode.

“I think Yukoners want an end to the political instability of past governments, where one government returns the territory to health and prosperity, only to have the next spend its time reversing those trends.”

When it came time for questions, the room sat silent and Fentie had to prompt the audience.

“When I was first elected in 1996, my mother came to me on election night and said, ‘You know, son, this is a good thing, because you finally found a use for that big mouth of yours.’ So surely there must be some questions in the crowd.”

The people tittered, then asked a few questions.

“We are in good times, there’s no doubt about that, and no matter what government,” said Grant Bossenberry, executive director of the Yukon WorkinfoNet, who asked about a national shortage of skilled labourers.

“Our real challenge here, beyond the training that we can do in the Yukon, is competing for those skilled people, those tradespeople,” replied Fentie.

“We are all, I think, in the West and in the North, experiencing some of the downside residual of growth. We have to address that issue in short, medium and long term.”

What can the government do to keep doctors in the Yukon, asked Andre Roothman, a Whitehorse-based lawyer.

The shortage is a global problem, said Fentie, though he acknowledged the need to increase the number of medical practitioners who live and work in the Yukon.

The federal health access fund was negotiated with the territories to provide resources for them to compete for doctors, he said.

“We didn’t have those resources 18 months ago,” said Fentie. “We now have something we can use to address that issue.

“But you’ll have to ask the minister of Health about that. I just went and got the money.”

Health care will be a major election issue, said Yukon Liberal Party leader Arthur Mitchell.

“I continue to be disappointed at the lack of innovation in terms of attracting medical personnel, both family physicians and other in-demand personnel,” said Mitchell, who attended the chamber luncheon.

“I’ve suggested forgivable tuition loans for family practitioners and other professionals, for Yukon residents and residents from elsewhere that want to come and practice in the Yukon.”

Fentie can’t take full credit for an economic turnaround, he added.

“We have to worry about sustainability, because we’re playing a little bit of Monopoly with somebody else providing the funds, and that’s Ottawa.

“The credit can certainly go to the former federal government and our member of Parliament for helping to bring increased funding here as well.

“To his credit, I’m sure that (Fentie) has played his role as well.”