Glenn Hart can split hairs like the best of them.
The Riverdale South MLA is widely considered to be one of the more decent and forthright members in cabinet.
But he, along with the rest of his colleagues in government, finds himself backed into the same corner over the ATCO scandal. So, asked to explain the mess to constituents at a meeting last week, he didn’t sound like his usual self.
Instead, he sounded a lot like Premier Dennis Fentie.
Like Fentie, he failed to address many outstanding questions about the scandal. Also like Fentie, he tried to brush aside the matter by making a statement that would be misleading to many.
“The sale of assets was never on the table,” said Hart.
Yet Hart later conceded the territory did, in fact, consider privatizing Yukon Energy, as proposed by Alberta-based ATCO.
How do you square those two statements? With some peculiar reasoning, and by taking a narrow view of what phrases like “on the table” mean.
Cabinet never authorized the sale of assets. According to Hart and others in cabinet, this means that privatization was never entertained.
But a joint position paper produced by the territory and ATCO in May tells a different story. It shows ATCO proposed rolling Yukon Energy’s assets into a new company that would be privately controlled.
Just how far these talks were pursued remains unclear, because Fentie refuses to disclose other documents connected to the ATCO offer.
Fentie has even contradicted himself on the nature of these talks. He told reporters over the summer that privatization may have been floated at some point during the ATCO talks.
Yet, when the legislature reconvened, he took a firmer line, declaring that privatization was never considered.
His ministers, including Hart, are toeing that line as well.
Hart also insisted that cabinet ministers knew of Fentie’s talks with ATCO.
“We were fully aware of what the premier was doing,” he said.
Brad Cathers says otherwise. He quit as Energy minister in August over Fentie’s handling of the ATCO affair.
After tendering his resignation, Cathers alleged Fentie lied to the public and cabinet about the ATCO talks. He further alleged Fentie did end-runs around the ministers responsible for the public utility during these talks.
This last allegation is corroborated by three former Yukon Energy directors. They all say that Jim Kenyon, who was responsible for Yukon Energy at the time, was unaware that the privatization talks were underway until he was told during a meeting last December.
Upset, Kenyon threatened to quit at the meeting, according to the directors and Cathers.
But Kenyon, who remained silent for three months on this matter, recently denied ever having threatened to resign.
The ATCO talks will become fully explained, said Hart. Just not yet.
In another echo of Fentie, he said the proper place to discuss the ATCO affair is the public accounts committee.
But the committee has a narrow mandate that makes it poorly suited to investigate the matter, said Cathers. Its job is simply to review whether government policy has been properly followed.
It likely won’t be able to get to the bottom of the premier’s role in the privatization talks.
However, moving the ATCO matter into the committee will likely help to shift the focus from Fentie to officials.
That’s unfair, said Cathers. It’s the job of politicians to justify the policy decisions they make. Yet Fentie has so far refused to do this. Instead, he’s throwing officials into the firing line.
And while Fentie and cabinet insist privatization was never entertained, he and Hart have both justified such talks by pointing out Yukon’s energy grid is badly in need of upgrades, as evidenced by the number of blackouts the territory has experienced over the past year.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of buying power bars,” said Hart.
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