In our system the Yukon’s next premier will not be selected by voters, but by members of the Yukon Liberal Party.
It is a remarkable opportunity. Where else in the world could you get control over a $1.8 billion budget with the support of only 1,000 or 2,000 people?
Yukon politicos are already placing their bets on who it will be. The most likely choice is one of the grizzled veterans already sitting at the cabinet table. The current premier’s choice to put no restrictions on the activities of cabinet ministers during the leadership campaign gives them an edge. Current ministers who run will try hard to convince party members they are the next Louis St. Laurent (governed successfully for nine years after succeeding Mackenzie King as federal Liberal leader) and not Kim Campbell (led the Tories to an electoral wipe out after taking over from Brian Mulroney).
Our MP Brendan Hanley might run. He earned widespread respect working with the Yukon Liberal government during the pandemic, but has some distance from the blemishes that any government acquires after six years in power.
Or it might be someone from the next generation. Possibly Speaker Jeremy Harper, who would be the Yukon’s first Indigenous premier. Or some young and ambitious business or community leader who has a track record of getting stuff done.
Whoever it is, they will inherit some big questions facing the Yukon. The decisions they make, or decide not to make, on the economy, health care, self-government and climate will have consequences.
On the economy, the choice is what to do about ever-expanding government budgets leading to housing shortages that both hurt Yukon families and choke off private-sector growth. It is wonderful that Ottawa is so generous, but the situation is now so severe that young Yukoners who don’t have government jobs are moving to places like Grande Prairie where housing is more reasonable.
Will the next premier keep the pedal to the metal on the spending machine, or try a new approach?
One litmus test will be whether the candidates support things like the new convention centre. While it would be good for the economy to have more conferences here, especially if you own local hotels, more large government construction contracts compete with homebuilding for scarce tradespeople. The labour shortage is so severe that the Yukon had the lowest unemployment rate in Canada in August. Building costs per square foot are eye-wateringly high. Is now the time to drop another big government project into the market?
The Yukon government’s recent hiring of consultants to study a varsity sports program at Yukon University is another example. I’ll be as enthusiastic as the next Yukoner ringing my cowbell when the YukonU Transfer Payments take to the ice, but I hope the consultants ask their clients this question: is now really the time to hire sports administrators, professional coaches, trainers and travel logistics coordinators and bring them with their families to the Yukon to compete with nurses and firefighters for scarce housing?
“Get money from Ottawa and spend it on whatever the best organized stakeholder group suggests” is an easy approach to governing. But perhaps some of the candidates for premier will have a different idea.
On health care, the Yukon faces a triple whammy: health professional shortages exacerbated by high housing costs, rising drug and health care technology costs, and an aging population. And we already have other issues. As of last November, there were 2,472 Yukoners on the waiting list for a family doctor. Stories of waiting lists for treatment abound. There is a growing recognition of the importance of mental health care, which will require more resources than historically accorded in health budgets.
The current government is reorganizing the hospital and health department as well as pursuing other recommendations in the Putting People First report. The next premier will have some tough decisions to make about how to fund these improvements. The federal Parliamentary Budget Officer reported on provincial and territorial fiscal sustainability last summer, and identified major financial challenges for most provinces. Health care expenditures are forecast to grow faster than most economies.
The next premier will also have to make sure the reforms promised in Putting People First are implemented in a way that Yukoners can see when they visit the doctor or the hospital. It will be a major fail if a few years pass and we have new job titles for senior officials and new names on the buildings, but still nurse shortages and 2,000 people without a family doctor.
Another big issue is the fiscal imbalance between the territorial government and our other levels of government. There is a major mismatch today between the responsibilities of First Nations and municipal governments and their tax bases. The Yukon government gets an enormous transfer payment, which it doles out to First Nations and municipal leaders under an alphabet soup of programs. First Nations and municipal leaders are constantly lobbying for funds, filling in applications, or signing off on elaborate administrative reports.
One result of this is that even the smallest announcement has representatives of three or four levels of government involved. The costs in time and money are significant.
The next premier may want to think of a Yukon version of the Territorial Formula Financing system which gives First Nations and municipal governments more steady and predictable funding.
There will also be some big climate decisions coming. Either we pay lip service to our ambitious 2030 targets to cut non-mining emissions by 45 percent, or major new policies will be required that will affect every Yukoner who drives, flies, uses electricity or heats a home. For example, who will pay for big new renewable energy projects, if the feds are not as generous next time as they were with the Atlin micro-hydro expansion? And who will pay for thousands of Yukon oil furnaces to be replaced, the government or the homeowner?
Of course, some candidates may decide to dodge such tricky issues during a leadership race. As Kim Campbell is alleged to have said during her last election campaign, “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.”
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.