Fledgling party prepares for convention

The Yukon could have a new political party by early June. That's when Willard Phelps hopes to hold a founding convention in Whitehorse for the fledgling party, which is now tentatively called the United Citizens Group.

The Yukon could have a new political party by early June.

That’s when Willard Phelps hopes to hold a founding convention in Whitehorse for the fledgling party, which is now tentatively called the United Citizens Group.

Phelps and his supporters have spent the past five months working on a draft constitution and core principles, which were publicly released yesterday.

The preamble describes the party as “a new kind of political party that will practice a new kind of politics – a politics based on consensus instead of contentiousness, pragmatism instead of ideology, and inclusiveness instead of factionalism and cronyism.”

The contentiousness and cronyism are none-too-subtle references to Premier Dennis Fentie’s style of government.

Phelps served as the Yukon Development Corporation’s chair until he and Fentie had a loud and messy falling out over the premier’s handling of energy privatization talks with Alberta-based ATCO.

A long-time conservative politician, Phelps returned to the public eye last summer when he led a chorus of criticism against Fentie, who he decried as a “tin-pot dictator.” Pretty soon he was being asked by supporters to consider a return to politics.

So, in November, Phelps announced plans to form a new party. As he tells it, both the government and opposition parties are too caught up in political gamesmanship to properly serve the public interest.

He’s calling for a non-partisan coalition that would attract types usually repelled by party politics, such as youth and First Nations.

Some have derided the whole idea as a contradiction in terms: a non-political political party. But Phelps saw enough enthusiasm in the more than 100 people who attended a meeting in late November to proceed.

Among those who voiced support for the new party was Andy Carvill, who recently resigned as grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Phelps has since met with the chiefs of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in, he said. And he plans to woo more potential members during a number of community visits, starting with Haines Junction next week.

Chief Mike Smith of the Kwanlin Dun showed up at Phelps’ news conference yesterday, but he said he hadn’t yet decided whether to support the party and beat a hasty retreat when reporters approached him.

“The NDP’s really gone down the tubes,” was all he offered.

Phelps has put himself forward as leader for the new party, although he insists he doesn’t “want to make a career of it.”

One unusual feature of the draft constitution is a provision to recall the leader at any time, if there’s enough grassroots support. This would help prevent rot in the party, said Phelps.

There’s no slate of candidates yet, although Phelps said he expects one to be in place for a possible autumn election. “I think we can move pretty quickly,” he said.

But two supporters at the news conference made clear their plans to run in the next election. Both are former MLAs who sat as Liberals before falling out with then-Premier Pat Duncan and have since become passionate boosters of electoral reform.

One is Don Roberts, who held the Porter Creek North riding from 2000 to 2002. The other is Mike McLarnon, who held Whitehorse Centre over the same period.

After leaving the Liberals both sat as Independents. Roberts didn’t run in the 2002 election, while McLarnon lost his seat to the NDP’s Todd Hardy.

“Recall’s a start, but it’s not good enough,” said McLarnon.

He plans to propose at the convention changes to the constitution so that cabinet is elected by the party members, rather than appointed by the premier. That would take considerable power away from the leader.

Other novelties were revealed by Rick Steele, who helped set up the party’s bare bones website.

“I’ve taught Willard how to use Facebook. That’s an innovation,” he said. “I’ve taught Willard how to use Skype.”

Information on the party can be found at sites.google.com/site/unitedcitizens2009. Or e-mail contact.unitedcitizens@gmail.com.

Contact John Thompson at