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Yukon ready for tough times: Fentie

Premier Dennis Fentie plans to prime the pump.He’s going to speed up the construction of highways, bridges and hydro projects.

Premier Dennis Fentie plans to prime the pump.

He’s going to speed up the construction of highways, bridges and hydro projects.

This “accelerated” public spending ought to lessen the impact of global economic turmoil on the Yukon, he told reporters on Thursday.

Investment in trades training programs would also be strengthened, said Fentie.

And, to monitor economic trends, Fentie has assembled a committee, led by himself and made up of department heads.

The committee would, among other things, examine government purchases to ensure they make a “positive impact,” said Fentie.

Fentie also plans to host a series of “roundtable” meetings to discuss the economy with organizations, such as chambers of commerce and First Nations.

“I’m willing to meet with any Yukoner,” said Fentie.

Fentie’s economic plan is meant to reassure Yukoners, he said. His main message: don’t panic.

“We are not in an economic crisis in this territory,” said Fentie. “Quite the contrary.

“It is a global cycle. We’ve been here before.”

The government is currently in good fiscal shape, said Fentie, with a net financial position — that’s accounting jargon for money in the bank, plus assets that can be sold — of about $165 million.

“That’s a stormy-day fund,” he said.

And he bragged about having led the territory through six surpluses.

But he wouldn’t rule out running a deficit this year.

Running into the red may be worth it if it means cushioning Yukoners from a recession, he said.

Such deficit spending would eat away at the government’s accumulated surplus. But he would not spend his way into debt as this would violate the Yukon’s Taxpayer Protection Act, Fentie said.

Spending on social programs would remain “strong,” he said.

Fentie frequently described the plan as “prudent” and “responsible” — words he appears to have borrowed from a joint-statement issued by all premiers after they met in Montreal on Monday to discuss the economic downturn.

He repeated these words many times later Thursday, during the first day of the legislative assembly’s current sitting.

He was met with jeers from opposition parties.

The plan amounts to “empty promises and hollow assurances,” said Opposition Leader Arthur Mitchell.

“He must be wearing rose-tinted glasses if he thinks this is just a normal economic cycle.”

Fentie has been slow to act, he added.

“The premier suddenly woke up.”

Fentie dealt with the attacks in two ways.

First, he suggested that criticizing his government would hurt the economy. He accused opposition parties of trying to scare the public.

“We are not going to run around setting our hair on fire like the members opposite,” he said.

Second, he said his critics have no credibility.

The record of both the NDP and Liberals in managing the Yukon economy speaks for itself, he said.

“It was a miserable failure we all suffered through,” said Fentie.

When Mitchell asked for specifics on the infrastructure projects being proposed, Fentie replied he should look at “all the projects he’s voted against in the past six years.”

Fentie tried to downplay the impact of the economic downturn on the territory’s mining industry.

The existing mines would probably continue to operate through a recession, he told reporters.

“We’re not totally dependent on the resource sector,” he told MLAs.

The economy now includes arts, culture, film, sound, IT, research and development, said Fentie.

“Of course, tourism is still a mainstay of our economy. There’s assistance for small business, and the list goes on.”

But the global downturn, which has caused metal prices to plummet, is already harming the Yukon, said Mitchell.

On October 15, a deal between North American Tungsten Corp. and a Chinese metal producer, worth $19.4 million, fell through. The Yukon government boasted about helping put the deal together in March, noted Mitchell.

“We’ve heard from the Yukon Chamber of Mines and from mining companies that the investment markets are drying up. Local companies have started to lay off workers,” said Mitchell.

Tourism will also take a hit, he said.

“Visitor numbers here and in Alaska were down this year and will be lower next year because our American neighbours are worried for their jobs and aren’t making travel plans.”

Meanwhile, Todd Hardy, leader of the NDP, was happy to claim credit for the roundtable talks on the economy that Fentie proposes.

In recent weeks, Hardy called on the government to hold such talks.

Tempers flared after Fentie told Hardy he “was nervous about accepting economic advice from the NDP.” Hardy responding, shouted, “that last statement was incorrect,” and “I would love it if the premier would speak with facts.”

Opposition members also dredged up two recent financial embarrassments: the $36.3 million it invested in asset-backed commercial paper, and what is now being dubbed the “Watson Lake sinkhole.”

It’s an empty shell of a building, located in Fentie’s riding, that was originally intended to be a health centre, to be built for $5 million.

The contract was sole-sourced to the father of Elaine Taylor, the Environment minister.

Two years later, this summer the government announced it planned to turn the empty shell, by now coated in black mould, into a full-fledged hospital, at a cost of $25 million.

“How does the minister justify this massive expenditure that was never planned for, consulted on or justified in any way?” Mitchell asked Public Works Minister Archie Lang.

The government has spent less than $5 million on the project to date, and “we are not overbudget on that facility,” said Lang.