Liberals gear up for election

Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell would build a youth shelter in Whitehorse if he were premier. He'd also pay to put more buses on the streets of the capital, and even make it free to ride them in the short term.

Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell would build a youth shelter in Whitehorse if he were premier.

He’d also pay to put more buses on the streets of the capital, and even make it free to ride them in the short term.

Mitchell made these commitments to party faithful during the Liberal Party’s annual general meeting on Saturday, in a speech that at times sounded awfully like an election platform.

A permanent youth shelter is needed in Whitehorse because “no young person should ever be forced to couch surf or trade their bodies and their dignity for a safe place to sleep,” said Mitchell.

The Youth of Today Society has proposed opening such a shelter in Whitehorse, but last autumn the territorial government balked at the project, saying that the proposal was full of holes.

Better bus service, meanwhile, would help wean Whitehorse residents off relying on motor vehicles, and a trial period of free bus service could boost ridership, Mitchell said.

Then there’s what Mitchell wouldn’t do.

He wouldn’t introduce health-care fees – an idea that was floated in a territorial report last year.

He wouldn’t meddle with processes that are supposed to be beyond the reach of government, such as the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. Premier Dennis Fentie stands accused of doing just that, by suppressing pro-conservation comments that were to be made by the Department of Environment to the commission.

That’s “political interference at its worst,” said Mitchell.

And he would not give control over water to private companies, “for that would be selling the birthright of future generations of Yukoners.” Fentie has encouraged Alberta-based ATCO to invest in the territory’s water infrastructure.

Mitchell also promised improved relations with First Nations. “We believe in consulting in advance of making decisions, rather than litigating after,” said Mitchell.

And Liberals would “take whatever action is required” to close the gap between the graduation rates of First Nation and nonnative students in the territory – although it remains far from clear how they propose to do this.

The past six months have been good to the Liberals, as popular support shifts away from the Yukon Party to their favour. One summer poll put the parties neck-and-neck in popular support.

But the Liberals’ growing popularity appears to have little to do with what they say and do – their performance ratings have not enjoyed a similar spike – and much to do with two big scandals that have dogged Fentie.

One has to do with meddling with the Peel Watershed land-use plan. The other involves Fentie’s role in negotiating with ATCO a proposed deal that critics have called the “backdoor privatization” of Yukon Energy.

For months, Fentie denied that such talks occurred. He now admits they did, and that he had “miscommunicated.”

Last month, the scandal triggered the resignation of Brad Cathers from cabinet. Cathers has accused Fentie of lying to the public about the ATCO deal and of pressuring him to corroborate the story.

Cathers’ departure puts the Yukon Party on minority government footing, creating the possibility of an autumn territorial election.

But that will depend on how Cathers and fellow Independent John Edzerza vote on matters of confidence.

Mitchell has been accused by some, such as Edzerza, of being brazenly opportunistic in his calls for an election. But that’s what the public wants, said Mitchell.

“We have heard from literally hundreds of Yukoners who are fed up with all of Premier Fentie’s wordsmithing and denials, and they want to throw this Yukon Party government out.”

Yukon Party members who support the current government “are endorsing all the lying and intimidation,” said Mitchell. “They are all in this together and they are no better than Dennis Fentie if they are prepared to continue condoning his actions.”

When the legislature reconvenes, Gary McRobb, the Liberals’ energy critic, plans to table a bill that “will make it impossible for any future government to privatize Yukon’s publicly owned Yukon Energy Corporation without going to the public for a clear mandate to do so via public referendum or a general election campaign,” said Mitchell.

“An issue this important should not be decided by nine MLAs. It should be decided and endorsed by the Yukoners we represent.”

Mitchell touted his party as Yukon’s “government in waiting.” But he acknowledged that an election won’t be easy to win.

The Yukon Party fundraises enough to blanket the territory with billboards and radio and television advertising during election campaigns.

“They will try to scare Yukoners with fear tactics about what will happen should the government change,” said Mitchell.

The Liberals have been less successful at raising money.

It’s unclear how much is in party coffers – such information was not disclosed to the public at the annual meeting – but annual reports by Elections Yukon show the Liberals consistently raising less than either the Yukon Party or the NDP.

The Yukon Party spent $166,000 during the 2006 election. The NDP spent $111,500. The Liberals spent only $63,500.

Mitchell asked party members to contribute their money and time to help bolster the party for an election, which will fall at the latest in the autumn of 2011, when the Yukon Party’s mandate expires. The party has about 470 members.

Liberals also chose a new executive at their annual meeting. Dave Laxton is president, Kirk Cameron is vice-president, Mike Kokiw is treasurer and Doug Tremblay is secretary. Directors are Cherish Clarke, Shay Smart, Cully Robinson and Ed Krahn.

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