Brad Cathers, Yukon Party MLA, addresses the media in 2016. Cathers, whose file includes critic for democratic institutions, is accusing Premier Sandy Silver of not playing fair when choosing members for the electoral reform commission. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

YG names electoral reform commission members, opposition cries foul

Members will submit a final report and recommendations in January

The composition of the electoral reform commission has been set.

Three members have been appointed, the government announced July 15. Opposition parties, particularly the Yukon Party, are pouncing on the opportunity to cry foul, accusing the Liberals of not working with them.

“We made our best effort to ensure that the commission reflected the Yukon, reflected the cultural, the regional and other diversities of Yukon,” said Premier Sandy Silver. “They’re very innovative people. I am very confident in their ability.”

Jessica Lott Thompson, director of the Yukon Human Rights Commission, is the chair. Bev Buckway, the former executive director of the Association of Yukon Communities and former mayor of Whitehorse, also has a seat along with Jean-Sebastien Blais, president of the Commission Scolaire Francophone du Yukon and a policy analyst with the Yukon Housing Corporation.

There were 20 applications by May 3, Silver said. Applicants were reviewed by the public service commission then appointed by cabinet.

Thompson said democracy can always be improved.

“I think that even when things are going fantastically well, even when things are going swimmingly, it’s essential to build opportunities for pause and reflection,” she said.

As of this week, commissioners are working from a draft terms of reference. A final working plan has yet to be hammered out.

Thompson said she doesn’t know when the terms of reference will be finalized.

A final report and recommendations will be submitted in six months. Commissioners will work on a part-time basis.

They’re to review options in order to ensure the Yukon’s electoral system “captures the intentions of voters as well as possible,” according to the draft terms of reference.

The commission is also tasked with looking into ways to improve how politicians and their respective parties operate.

“This work should include options for fair and transparent elections, political fundraising and spending rules, and a more open and accountable legislature,” the draft terms of reference says.

The independent body will also assess how Yukoners participate during elections and how to improve that.

“I think we’re being asked to do a lot,” Thompson said. “I think we have a really comprehensive mandate and I think there will potentially be some difficult choices for us to make, in terms of the scope of public education or the scope of how we generate the deliverables that the mandate asks of us.”

As of July 15, commissioners had met once, she added.

Opposition parties have criticized the process of setting up the commission for months. They aren’t happy with the Liberals’ approach, saying they were cut out from deliberations altogether or not involved to the degree they ought to have been.

Creating a non-partisan commission on electoral reform was an election promise by the Liberals. Silver has consistently said it will be non-partisan both on the floor of the legislative assembly and to reporters.

This is a sham, according to Brad Cathers, a Yukon Party MLA whose file includes critic for democratic institutions. He said that members of the commission – namely Blais and Thompson – have made financial contributions to the federal Liberals and NDP, respectively.

Blais donated $1,175 to the Liberal Party of Canada in 2016, according to Elections Canada data.

Thompson contributed $7,117 to the NDP between 2011 and 2014.

Both confirmed they made these donations and both say it doesn’t colour their roles as members of the commission.

“I have definitely had involvement with the NDP during my life,” said Thompson, adding that she’s volunteered for the party before and was a federal candidate in 1997.

“I disclosed my political background, my involvement with the NDP during the application process.”

Thompson said she hasn’t had any political affiliations since moving to the Yukon in 2015.

Blais said he’s been neutral since making donations to the Liberals.

“It wasn’t territorial. I’m not very concerned. It would have been different if that had been made like last month, right?”

According to Blais’ LinkedIn profile, he’s worked as a policy chair for the Liberal Party, assisting MP Larry Bagnell, among other things.

He confirmed that he held this position, noting that he terminated it in 2016.

“That’s someone who’s very clearly a Liberal partisan and a Liberal insider, not a non-partisan appointment,” Cathers said of Blais. “Despite the premier’s promise that it will be a non-partisan commission, it very clearly has the appearance that it is.”

The Yukon Party believes all parties should be at the table when it comes to selecting members of the commission.

That this didn’t happen undermines the whole thing, Cathers said.

“They should not have 100 per cent of the say in setting up something that may change our electoral system,” he said, referring to Silver’s Liberals.

Cathers confirmed that Silver did engage. It was, however, informal — nothing was put down in writing.

He said a list of the 20 candidates was provided and that input was asked for on June 10, though it wasn’t clear what type of input Silver was after. The Yukon Party followed up with an email the day of, but it was returned nearly one month later, Cathers said.

“In it, again, he avoided putting his request in writing or answering our questions.”

On July 11, the Yukon Party tried again, requesting answers in writing, Cathers said.

“We received a response minutes before he announced the commission,” he said. “We are left with a strong impression the premier was never sincere about working with us.”

NDP Leader Kate White said her party wasn’t involved – period.

“We were not part of the selection process. That was the government’s decision. The process had lots to be desired. They made their choices, and I have faith in the people that have been chosen,” she said.

Asked whether the opposition parties were involved in the selection process, Silver said they were.

“I engaged with both the NDP and Yukon Party leaders prior to selecting the commission,” he said. “I shared with them all the 20 names. There was a lot more participation from the NDP. I very much did appreciate the feedback that I did receive, absolutely.

“I sat down with both Liz (Hanson) and Kate for about an hour just last week on this, so I don’t know if she forgot that meeting, where we talked about the candidates. For her to say there was no engagement she must have forgot that day completely,” said Silver, adding that he gave them “everything” he had.

Silver’s comments towards the Yukon Party are far more pointed.

“They want to dictate and control the complete process and they’re not in government, so they’re not going to do that,” he said.

He said it was difficult to make contact with Stacey Hassard, interim party leader.

“We made a commitment to the Yukon public that we would do electoral reform. We made a commitment to try our best to work with them. Some opposition parties are a lot easier to work with than others and we’re a lot more engaging in that process.

“I’m not going to stop or slow down this process because a particular party has decided it’s their way or the highway.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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