Johnston’s hot, Fraser’s not

The Yukon Party government is happy to share the floor of the legislature with Canada's governor general. But the auditor general? Not so much. Today, Governor General David Johnston will address the legislative assembly.

The Yukon Party government is happy to share the floor of the legislature with Canada’s governor general. But the auditor general? Not so much.

Today, Governor General David Johnston will address the legislative assembly. It’s the first time this has ever happened, and Yukon’s MLAs agreed to adjourn to make time for Johnston, who took on the job as the Queen’s representative in July.

But when auditor general Sheila Fraser visits next Tuesday, if she appears in the legislative chambers at all, it will be in the visitorse gallery.

The Liberal and NDP opposition wanted Fraser and her staff to appear before MLAs to answer questions in public. But government members refused, according to the opposition.

It’s easy enough to understand why, even if Premier Dennis Fentie offered no intelligible explanation in the legislature yesterday.

Johnston’s job is to be a figurehead, so his speech is expected to be high on pomp and short on criticism.

Sheila Fraser may lack the trappings of royalty, but her appearance will be a more weighty matter. Each year, she scrutinizes a different department of the Yukon government. This year, Health and Social Services is in the spotlight.

Her findings probably won’t be pretty. The department is expected to consume more than $265 million this year – nearly one-quarter of the territory’s total revenues.

This leaves lots of room for waste. And it’s no secret the department has trouble controlling costs. Each year, Health dependably exceeds its budget, requiring the government to top-up its coffers mid-year.

The date of Fraser’s visit has been known to MLAs for several months. Yet government members claimed they were too busy to allow Fraser to interrupt the sitting, according to the opposition.

The Liberals initially wanted the assembly to recess for a day, to allow Fraser to appear before the public accounts committee. Fraser’s staff have frequently made such an appearance. But not this year.

When that option was blocked, the NDP proposed Fraser appear as a witness before the committee of the whole.

Both plans were nixed. Instead, MLAs will call Craig Tuton, chair of the hospital corporation, as a witness on the day Fraser is in town.

It’s unlikely Tuton is busier than Fraser, said the NDP’s Steve Cardiff in an interview.

“The government doesn’t want to give her the opportunity to answer questions from MLAs about what’s in the report,” he said.

The opposition doesn’t know what will be in Fraser’s report. But government MLAs do. Fraser’s office always works with government officials, to allow the territory to prepare a response to her criticisms in advance.

On Tuesday, Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell asked Fentie why the government was preventing Fraser from taking to the legislature floor to explain her findings.

Fentie hit back by accusing the Liberals of wanting to cut health costs at the expense of patient’s lives. “We don’t tell Yukoners, ‘Sorry, you can’t go to see the physician because you have a bad heart, because we have tabled an estimate that says you can’t,’” said Fentie.

Mitchell tried again. Fentie responded by accusing Mitchell of “not doing his job” as chair of the public accounts committee.

“It’s disingenuous,” Mitchell said afterwards in an interview. “It’s a complete roadblock.”

Fraser will speak to reporters on Tuesday. And she will also address MLAs during her visit – behind closed doors.

That’s not good enough, said Mitchell.

“Openness is the first step towards accountability,” he said.

New FH Collins faces delays

The Yukon government’s plans to replace FH Collins High School have been delayed by one year, with an occupancy date pushed back to the autumn of 2013.

As recently as late October, Education Minister Patrick Rouble declared the territory would stick with plans to spend $24.4 million in 2011-12 to get the bulk of the school’s construction done, with ground breaking this spring.

Not any more. The territory’s 2011-12 budget, tabled last week, includes just $2.7 million for the project.

Design work has taken longer than expected, Rouble told the legislature on Monday. In particular, studies must be done to see whether the new school’s proposed ground-heating pump will actually work as intended, sucking latent heat from the earth to help cut utility bills.

And, with tradesmen already in short supply, Rouble suggested that delaying the new school would be doing the construction industry a favour by spacing out lucrative government contracts.

Officials had flagged the FH Collins project’s timeline as overly “aggressive” in late October – around the same time Rouble had vowed that construction was set to rev up this spring.

Project manager Ken Fisher said this year would be spent putting final touches on designs, as well as preparing utility lines and road access. The new school will stand beside the existing one.

The new school is set to cost more than $50 million. At least $1.2 million has been spent to date on the school design and planning.

Future work is now expected to cost $51.3 million. That’s up by $7 million from estimates one year ago.

Sandra Henderson, chair of the school council, learned about the construction delays through a news report.

“We’re disappointed, of course,” she said.

FH Collins was built in 1963. The Yukon Party government has commissioned a raft of studies since 2007 to study how to build a replacement for the existing school.

The Liberals’ Eric Fairclough dismissed Rouble’s explanation for the delays. “Sounds like excuses to me,” he said.

The NDP’s Steve Cardiff had a cooler take. He referred to plans to build Watson Lake’s health centre, which were altered midway through construction.

The shell of the building is now being converted into a hospital, at considerable expense.

“It’s important to get it right the first time,” said Cardiff. “Fast-tracking is not an appropriate way to go on many of these projects.”

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