Fentie’s biggest challenge yet

Premier Dennis Fentie's face turned a deeper shade of red as question period wore on yesterday, on the first day of what is sure to be the most challenging sitting of the legislature he's faced.

Premier Dennis Fentie’s face turned a deeper shade of red as question period wore on yesterday, on the first day of what is sure to be the most challenging sitting of the legislature he’s faced.

Nobody else in the room is as adept at taking an embarrassing revelation and spinning it around to his own benefit.

But there are limits to what rhetorical judo can accomplish. And Fentie finds himself in a tight spot.

He continues to maintain that the territory never considered privatizing Yukon Energy, when documents flatly contradict him.

Arthur Mitchell, leader of the Liberal Opposition, laboured away at this point through question period, and then pulled out a parliamentary trick to say something that rules of decorum would usually forbid: that Fentie made a “deliberate attempt to mislead the legislature and the public” when he told the legislature in late April that the government had no plans to privatize Yukon Energy.

In other words, Fentie lied.

Mitchell isn’t the first to make such an allegation. Brad Cathers said as much when he announced his resignation from cabinet and caucus over the ATCO debacle in late August.

But Mitchell is the first to call Fentie a liar in the legislature and get away with it.

Usually, MLAs are constrained by convention to take one another at their words. They can accuse one another of misstating the facts, but they cannot impute motive.

But Mitchell snuck that, and other digs, in by making a motion of privilege that called for Fentie to be held in contempt of the House.

Such a motion stands no chance of actually passing, as Fentie’s government enjoys majority control of the legislature. But it provides Mitchell with more opportunities to dredge up what’s become the most politically damaging scandal to shake Fentie’s government.

First it triggered the resignation of half of Yukon Energy’s board, and turned its former chair, Willard Phelps, from a conservative ally into an outspoken critic of the government.

Then it prompted the resignation of Cathers. He alleges that Fentie not only lied to the public,

he also lied to cabinet ministers about the ATCO talks and issued orders to staff behind ministers’ backs.

Cathers further alleges that Fentie pressured him to corroborate his story. He wouldn’t. Instead, he quit.

Cathers’ departure briefly caused Fentie’s government to lose its majority status, only to have it restored when John Edzerza, a one-time Yukon Party member who left to join the NDP and later sit as an independent, returned to the fold earlier this month.

But even with a restored majority, the public’s faith in Fentie’s government appears to be badly shaken. Its popularity has sunken to an all-time low, according to a poll released yesterday. And most Yukoners now believe the number 1 issue facing the territory is no longer the environment or the economy. It’s poor government. (See story, page 2.)

Both Phelps and Cathers agree that the ATCO agreement amounted to privatization. But it appears Fentie has a different definition of the word.

The premier also has an idiosyncratic definition of negotiations. When it came to light that the territory had engaged in its secret ATCO talks for at least seven months, from October of 2008 until the summer of 2009, Fentie downplayed it all by saying the talks were not, in fact, negotiations.

“We don’t believe that and neither do most Yukoners,” said Mitchell.

But government officials say negotiations were underway, even if the premier won’t, Mitchell noted.

The government spent $275,000 on lawyers and consultants during the ATCO talks. The efforts of these officials produced a lot of paperwork.

But when the Liberals filed an access-to-information request for these documents, the government denied the request. The reason? Negotiations were underway.

Fentie insisted yesterday that the decision to keep these documents secret was never made by him. It was the bureaucracy’s call.

That earned a chortle from Cathers, who has alleged that Fentie is suppressing the documents because they’re embarrassing to him.

But Fentie’s main defence against questions about the ATCO scandal was to foot-drag.

The public accounts committee is the proper place to discuss the matter, he said, deferring on answering most questions until then.

Besides buying time, this move shifts the responsibility of explaining the ATCO debacle from Fentie to bureaucrats, who will be called on to explain the mess. It’s not yet clear when the committee will meet, but Mitchell, who accused Fentie of stalling, said it’s likely to happen sometime next year.

Fentie also claimed that Mitchell has the ATCO scandal all wrong, and that the opposition has been confusing the public with “misinformation.”

But Fentie gave no examples of what’s untrue in Mitchell’s account of events. And he has yet to directly address the allegations made by Cathers.

Instead, he fell back on his trademark bluster and tried his best to sound indignant.

A proper airing of the matter in the public accounts committee is, said Fentie, “what the public deserves.”

“They deserve the facts.”

Just not anytime soon.

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