Willard Phelps is pushing ahead with plans to create a new territorial political party, after about 100 people showed up at the Gold Rush Inn on Wednesday evening to hear his pitch.
Those who attended were warm, but not without skepticism about Phelps’ proposal to create a new, populist party that would welcome members “of all political stripes” and aim to recruit youth and First Nations—two demographics that currently shy away from party politics.
It’s in its early days. The fledgling party doesn’t yet have a platform, a slate of candidates, a leader or even a name.
And some big questions, raised at the meeting, remain unresolved.
Is it really possible to form a “non-partisan” political party, or is this a contradiction in terms?
Is the current public disillusionment with our MLAs really a product of our electoral system, or simply of the people we’ve elected? And if the system’s broken, will yet another political party be able to fix it?
Finally, is Phelps the right man for the job? Or will his own baggage as a long-time conservative politician drag down the movement he helped start?
Almost everyone at the meeting agreed on this much: it’s time for something new.
Nearly two-thirds of Yukoners are disillusioned with all three existing political parties, according to a recent DataPath poll.
The Yukon Party government has tumbled in the polls over the past year, as Premier Dennis Fentie continues to evade questions over his involvement in talks to privatize Yukon Energy and in the gutting of a document that proposed protecting the Peel Watershed.
The Liberals and NDP have both enjoyed small popularity bounces, but voters are not flocking to either party.
“Right now, there’s a yearning for change. We all know it exists,” said Phelps.
“We need an alternative, because there’s a lot of people who desperately want to get rid of this government.”
Political platforms are overrated, he said, because all territorial parties end up governing from the centre. Instead, the new party would be founded on several core values Phelps finds lacking in Yukon’s existing parties.
It would be open and accountable. To ensure this, its leadership would be required to meet with its members on a monthly basis, said Phelps.
It would be driven by the public interest, rather than by the greed and cowardice that Phelps attributes to the current regime. He suggested that cabinet ministers tolerate Fentie’s bullying leadership because of their ever-fattening pensions and a $120,000 “golden parachute” that awaits many ministers if their government survives for another two years.
And it would seek consensus through reasonable compromise. Currently, Yukon’s political parties are reluctant to ever acknowledge their rivals are right.
This proved to be a big obstacle when Phelps sat as an independent in the early 1990s and tried to win support of bills he authored. “Do you know what I was told? ‘My party would kill me if I did that,’” he said.
Much of this resonated with the crowd.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Andy Carvill, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, and one of several chiefs in attendance.
As evidence of the current government’s stubborn refusal to compromise, Carvill pointed to the Supreme Court of Canada case underway that pits the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation against the Yukon government.
“I offered the premier more than once to sit down and work this out,” he said. “I was refused.”
“It’s time for a change in government. It’s time for a government that listens to the people.”
However, Phelps’ attack on partisan politics may have opened a can of worms.
“It’s the partisan nature of our system that’s the core problem,” he said.
But if political parties are the problem, why create another one? Some in the crowd called for the abolition of parties in favour of a consensus government such as what’s found in the Northwest Territories.
Consensus government suffers from two big flaws, Phelps replied.
First, it leads to pork-barrelling. Each member pushes for perks for their riding, and without party discipline to keep this in check, there’s invariably “more take than give.”
Second, it’s hard for voters to turf an unpopular government without parties in place.
“To offer a clear alternative, you need a party,” said Phelps.
Members of the federal Green Party, meanwhile, mused aloud over how Phelps’ core values sound awfully like their own. Why not just create a territorial Green Party?
Phelps answered that he had sympathy with the Greens in many causes, but their party may have too narrow a focus for the broad membership he aims to catch.
“I don’t feel that any of the philosophies define me. I take a little from each,” he said.
Then there’s Phelps’ past. As the minister responsible for Yukon Energy in the mid-1990s, Phelps considered privatizing Yukon Energy, Jim Brohman reminded the crowd.
That’s the very issue that brought Phelps back on to the public stage this summer, when he loudly denounced Fentie for considering the very same thing.
Where, “along the road to Demascus,” did Phelps have his change of heart, asked Brohman?
Phelps abandoned the plan shortly after watching the public balk at the idea, and after experts explained to him that privatization was a bad idea, he said.
“It was up-front, it was in the open, and it didn’t go very far,” said Phelps.
Brohman also reminded Phelps that he could be as rude and obnoxious as anyone in the legislature, making him an unlikely figure to be calling for a new, conciliatory form of politics.
For example, in December of 1994, Phelps savaged the NDP’s Margaret Commodore for “daring to accept payment as a minister, given her deplorable performance of duty during her tenure.”
This was in response to Commodore dredging up how Phelps, then Health minister, was known as “the $800-a-day-man” for the fees he collected as a land-claims negotiator.
But a lot has changed since then, Phelps told the crowd.
“Sometimes I go overboard. I fully admit that,” he said. “But now that I’m older and wiser, I’m capable of working in a party like this.”
Many appeared convinced, including Don Roberts, who counted himself a foe of Phelps when he sat as a Liberal MLA, and later as an independent. “There’s been an epiphany with Willard, at this point,” he said.
Peter Percival alone dissented. Phelps is an “old boy” himself, he said, so how is he in any position to rail against them?
“If you hadn’t had this cockfight with Dennis, you wouldn’t be before us now,” he said. “Why should we think you’ll be any different than in the past?”
Phelps let that one go without comment. But earlier he tried to sound cool to leading the new party, even if he’s the only contender so far.
“I’ll take this forward if I have to, but I’m not looking for a new career of that’s what anyone here’s thinking,” he said.
Phelps expects to hold another big meeting in March. Until then, recruits signed up at the meeting will break off into committees to begin the work involved in starting a new party.
As the meeting came to an end after more than three hours, Phelps received a heart-felt cheer from one woman.
“Three young men didn’t vote in the past election. They came to this meeting. They’re ready to vote. Thank you for giving them something to look forward to.”
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