If Wednesday night’s CBC election debate were a comedy routine, Premier Darrell Pasloski would have left the clear winner.
Hands down, the Yukon Party leader provoked the most chuckles and laughs from the crowd of approximately 250 people who packed into the Gold Rush Inn.
Unfortunately for Pasloski, his lines weren’t supposed to be funny.
To him, it must have seemed like a rigged game. The audience appeared far more friendly to the opposition leaders.
And Pasloski hasn’t given himself much wiggle room when it comes to speaking on the biggest issue this election: the fate of the Peel Watershed.
So he hunkered down and stuck to the script, accusing the opposition of dividing Yukoners and issuing his grim warnings that protecting the watershed would bankrupt the territory, by provoking miners to launch expensive lawsuits.
But opposition members and the crowd both pushed back at Pasloski’s assertions.
NDP Leader Liz Hanson accused Pasloski of trying to hold the territory for “ransom” by exaggerating the value of speculative exploration properties.
“That’s not a threat you should be holding up to Yukoners,” she said.
And Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell noted that the most notable property in the Peel, Chevron’s massive Crest iron deposit, has gone undeveloped for a half century since its discovery.
“No one chose to mine there, because it’s not economical,” he said.
Nor does it follow that Yukon’s existing mines would shutter just because the Peel is protected, said Mitchell.
“This is a false construct, that mining is going to leave if you take one portion of the Yukon and preserve it for future Yukoners.”
Pasloski told opposition leaders to “cool the rhetoric” enough times that one wag on Twitter suggested that a drinking game could be devised, like the one that called for Americans to down a shot every time Sarah Palin said “maverick.”
“The rhetoric I keep hearing is yours,” said Mitchell. “It’s you who is pitting Yukoners against Yukoners.”
Shifting to the economy, Pasloski tried out a visual gag: a sheet with cheery economic charts. He often waved it around – not the best way to win a radio debate.
“These are just simply facts,” said Pasloski, to more laughter. On Twitter, critics responded with their own countervailing statistics.
From the crowd, someone raised an economic report card released by the CD Howe Institute that flunked the territory for overshooting a decade of budgets by $450 million.
The results must have been skewed by including the tail-end of the former Liberal government, said Pasloski.
Nonsense, said Mitchell. Nearly all of those cost overruns were done under the Yukon Party’s reign.
The Yukon’s one of two jurisdictions with money in the bank, said Pasloski. He contrasted that to the former Liberal government, which, for a brief time, borrowed money to cover its payroll.
But that ignores debt that’s being done off the books, said Hanson. The territory is borrowing $167 million to expand the Mayo hydroelectric project and build new hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson City.
And the Yukon Party shut down debate on the last budget, said Hanson. Before this happened, when she’d ask financial questions, government ministers would often respond with non sequiturs.
“They’d read the campground guide,” she said.
Plus, the territory’s sat on $17 million in federal money earmarked for affordable housing in recent years, said Mitchell. Take that away, “and there really isn’t money in the bank.”
The rosiest financial figures lump in the value of the territory’s schools, hospitals, and other fixed assets. Would Pasloski sell those? asked Mitchell.
Pasloski claimed that “the Yukon Party created today’s prosperity.” Mitchell contended that the meteoric rise of metal prices helped drive today’s mining boom.
Greater federal transfers mean the territory’s now more dependent on handouts from Ottawa than it was before the Yukon Party took power, said Mitchell. Much of that money’s been squandered, he asserted.
“There’s an old saying: ‘The best time to fix a roof is when it’s not raining.’
We haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities we’ve had. It’s time we do so.”
Mitchell and Hanson had different takes on how to handle uranium mining, public-private partnerships and mineral staking in municipalities.
The NDP opposes all of it.
Mitchell would consult the public on uranium mining.
“If Yukoners tell us they say no to uranium, that’s what we’ll do,” said Mitchell.
He’d also consider partnering with the private sector, but wouldn’t replace government workers with private ones, said Mitchell.
And the Liberals would “empower” municipalities to decide whether to allow mineral staking – currently, it’s out of their hands – rather than impose a “top-down” ban, as the NDP proposes.
Mitchell also sniped at the NDP’s proposal to upgrade the territory’s internet for $1.5 million. The Liberals estimate that running another datapipe to Outside would cost $13 million.
Mitchell can come across as whiney. But he didn’t during this debate, and he managed to avoid being the butt of any jokes.
It helped that Mitchell seemed to know every person posing a question, from the woodcutter frustrated with bureaucratic bungling to the Pelly Crossing resident who wished his community had more jobs.
NDP supporters cheered Hanson’s performance. But she frequently tripped over her tongue, and she was hobbled by her subservience to an egg timer.
A half-dozen times, she stopped the instant the timer rang, requiring the moderator, Dave White, to urge her to finish her thought.
Hanson also ended on a sour note, asserting that this election is a “two-way” race between the NDP and the Yukon Party.
This final bit of swagger seemed to undercut Hanson’s presentation of herself as a kinder, more conciliatory sort of politician than the rest.
And it didn’t sound like she believed it. Neither did much of the audience.
“No, it’s not,” someone shouted. The last laugh was on her.
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