“The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money,” wrote French political economist Alexis de Tocqueville in 1836 after traveling across America for his famous book Democracy in America.
He was wrong of course. Politicians made that discovery many years ago, and the American Republic endures. Versions of his saying are now all over t-shirts, bumper stickers and websites, usually along the lines of, “Elections are when politicians bribe voters with their own money.”
This cynical view may be true in most democracies, but not in the Yukon.
If our politicians bribe us, it’s with money from Ottawa not our own.
Less than one dollar in six of the Yukon government’s revenue comes from Yukoners.
The election so far has been a hailstorm of spending promises from all parties. Journalists have struggled to keep up. Big, multi-million-dollar projects that would have got pages of newspaper coverage in regular times are now reduced to just one line in a daily campaign roundup article with a dozen spending promises.
On just one day last week we had a freeze in electricity rates, a new school in Ross River, a new athletics field house that could also do conventions, rural broadband rates capped at $100 a month, an inter-community bus service and varsity sports. And there were a bunch of smaller announcements too.
The varsity sports announcement made me realize this election has jumped the shark.
I enjoy college sports and look forward to cheering enthusiastically when the Yukon University Transfer Payments take to the ice to play the University of Alaska Seawolves. It would be a lot of fun, and great for the university and the students, if Yukon season-ticket purchasers and corporate sponsors funded the university in getting into varsity sports.
But to spend government money on varsity sports? Now?
Everyone says we’re in a climate emergency. There is a housing crisis. One high-schooler in five doesn’t graduate, and the situation is worse for First Nations students. The population is aging and huge healthcare costs are coming down the pipeline at us.
Oh, and there’s also a pandemic happening. Mental health issues have skyrocketed. The tourism industry has been hammered. The health system will need more money for years for equipment, booster shots, public health staff and more.
The parties would reply that they have promises for all of these issues. And they probably do. It’s hard to think of an issue where a spending promise has not been made.
But all the spending promises raise a few troubling questions. And that was even before the parties began to release their full platforms, brimming over with election goodies, in the last few days.
Do the parties really think all these promises are as deserving of public funds as health, renewable energy, housing or education?
Do they realize that the Yukon government, like many governments, finds it challenging to set up and run new programs efficiently and effectively? Especially when it has to implement a dozen new programs on top of trying to fix the issues with current programs?
What is the long run fiscal position for the Yukon government? It is already borrowing to pre-spend transfer payments from future years. What happens when those future years arrive if we spend even more now?
One thing that we have not seen a lot of is creative campaign platforms that don’t involve spending more federal money. For example, are there some fundamental reforms to the education system that would help solve the graduation gap? We already spend far more per student than most places, so it’s not obvious that more spending is the answer.
The persistent growth in government also raises the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket issue. Like Alaska struck oil, we struck transfer payment.
The slump in oil prices since 2014 has put Alaska through a painful recession. Thousands of Alaskans have left the state each year since 2015.
We have to hope our transfer payment never runs into a national financial crisis or political backlash in the South. Remember the damaging political reaction in Congress to Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” proposal. Our politicians might want to keep in mind how lavish their promises would look in the eyes of a suburban Toronto voter struggling with soaring mortgage payments and shaky post-pandemic employment.
The parties seem to believe that the ‘hailstorm of promises’ strategy is effective at winning votes. And it may be.
But, when candidates come to the door, Yukoners may want to ask them if they have any ideas about how to improve Yukoners’ well-being that does not involve spending more Outside money.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.