When Yukon’s New Democrats acclaimed Elizabeth Hanson as their new leader on Saturday evening, the crowd of about 50 members in attendance at the Yukon Inn were treated to what could be the best political invective to be hurtled at Premier Dennis Fentie in recent memory.
The speech was mocking and scornful in its assessment of Yukon’s political leadership and heartfelt in its appeal to the public good.
It connected not just with the brains, but with the stomachs of those who attended, providing the kind of emotional engagement that is a rarity in Yukon politics today.
Alas, the speech was not given by Hanson. Nor was it made by Todd Hardy, the outgoing leader.
The barnburner was instead delivered by Jim Sinclair, leader of the BC Federation of Labour.
He riffed on the scandals that have plagued Fentie in the past six months with delight, chortling at how Yukon’s information and privacy commissioner has declared it “Right to Know” week, and wondering aloud if anyone had told Fentie – who admits to having gone behind the backs of his cabinet ministers to discuss the privatization of Yukon Energy.
He derided Patrick Rouble’s defence of Fentie as a “strong leader,” and suggested the Education minister had forgotten to complete his description, which he said ought to be “strong and silent.”
Sinclair didn’t fault Alberta-based ATCO for engaging in privatization talks with the premier, for, as he said, “Their job is to make a lot of money.”
But he admonished Fentie for pursuing energy privatization, which he said would inevitably result in Yukoners paying bigger electricity bills.
“His job is to protect you. And that includes protecting you from ATCO,” said Sinclair.
Throughout his speech, Sinclair swaggered with the same confidence seen only in one Yukon politician, and that’s Fentie.
Hanson’s speech, by contrast, was a more subdued affair.
She promised to “listen, rather than direct,” and to draw on her long experience as a senior federal bureaucrat in land-claims talks to work as a consensus-builder, as opposed to the strong-arm tactics employed by Fentie.
But she did take more offensive ground than she had in earlier public addresses, taking swipes at the Yukon Party as arrogant bullies and at the Liberals as ineffectual and ill-fit to govern.
When Brad Cathers’ resignation from cabinet and caucus one month ago knocked the Yukon Party into minority government status, Hanson called on MLAs to try working with the government before trying to defeat it. This put her at odds with the NDP’s MLAs, who both plan to oppose the government in a confidence vote when the legislature reconvenes.
Hanson gave no such benefits of the doubt to Fentie’s government on Saturday. She accused them of adopting a “dinosaur” approach to resource development that assumes “bigger is better.”
“Yukon’s land and resources are not for sale. They do not need to be pimped,” she said.
And she denounced Fentie for displaying a “father knows best” arrogance, “as if he has a right to govern,” in his role in preventing Department of Environment documents from being submitted to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission.
The Liberals, meanwhile, may talk about bringing about more-responsive government, but Hanson faulted them for failing to support the NDP’s democratic reform bills.
“They won’t walk the walk,” said Hanson.
However, even Liberal support would not have prevented the Yukon Party using its majority to defeat these bills. And the Liberals have promised to introduce their own democratic reform measures, if elected.
Hanson also criticized the Yukon Party for not doing enough to help the needy and small businesses through the global recession. And the territory’s tourism promotion fails to “capture the essence of the Yukon experience,” she said.
But she proposed no specific alternatives.
Instead, she dwelled on the past glories of the NDP – reminding party faithful that it was responsible for such achievements as Yukon’s Environment Act, the human rights commission, the Yukon Arts Centre, Yukon College and the Yukon native teacher education program.
She also spoke of how her father died in a plane crash when she was a child, plunging the family from middle-class comfort into a struggle for subsistence, and giving her firsthand knowledge of what poverty feels like.
But Hanson spoke more about sustainability than socialism. It appears she plans to steer the party away from the hard-leftward course set by Hardy, back towards the centre.
Tacking toward green issues may also help the party appeal to youth – at Saturday’s meeting, about one-third of the crowd was not yet sporting grey hair.
Still, Hanson has some big challenges ahead of her if she hopes to build the NDP into a credible government-in-waiting.
Her party trails the Yukon Party and the Liberals in the polls. Its leader remains unelected.
And they currently only have about 200 members. That’s double the membership of the party one year ago, but a small fraction of the popular support the party enjoyed during its heyday, under the governments of Tony Penikett and Piers McDonald. Back then, Faro, an active mining community, sported more than 350 members.
With an election looming in the next 24 months, much will hinge on how many potential members Hanson will be able to win over.
There’s no doubt she’s personable and smart. And she’s probably a better speaker than either Hardy, whose angry outbursts often sound feigned, or Cardiff, whose voice and hands tremble when he addresses a crowd.
But she still talks rather like a bureaucrat, with a level tone better suited to a PowerPoint presentation than to moving political oration.
If Saturday’s speech is any indication, she could take some cues from Sinclair, and work on expressing some genuine outrage, or at least something that feels like it.
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