The Yukon Chamber of Commerce held its Yukon Leaders’ Debate on business and the economy on March 30. The debate was moderated by Yukon News editor Gabrielle Plonka.
Co-host organizations gave introductory remarks and were able to submit questions including the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, Yukon Chamber of Mines, Yukon Agricultural Association, Yukon First Nation Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon.
Despite the name of the event, only two party leaders — Kate White and Currie Dixon — attended. Previous Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai represented the Liberal government.
The recovery of the tourism sector has been one of the hottest issues during the pandemic.
In the third question of the night, the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon asked the three parties what their plans were to support the ailing industry.
Dixon said the territory needs “clear benchmarks” and “clear information.”
Pillai fired back, insisting that safety was the main priority for the Liberal Party. He accused the Yukon Party of repeatedly trying to open borders and encouraging a charter challenge against the isolation orders.
“It’s not about platitudes, it’s about dealing with this crisis, which we have from the start,” he said.
Pillai touted economic recovery funding provided to the tourism sector and the election announcement about the “great Yukon summer” that will subsidize tourism activities for local Yukoners in 2021.
He also hinted that a “rapid-testing program” would be coming later this spring.
She said the NDP will support the largest private-sector employer in recovery, and said she personally has been involved in promoting tourism through mountain biking promos.
The cost of electricity was another big topic during the debate, with all three parties having different strategies to deal with the need to balance costs and building new renewable projects.
Dixon said the Yukon Party will freeze energy rates for two years and build an LNG plant in order to end the reliance on rented diesel generators.
Ranj Pillai said the most recent dramatic rate hikes were due to the actions of the previous Yukon Party government and even with an LNG plant would still need to rely on diesel as an emergency power supply. Instead, he said the Liberal Party is proposing consistent increases to energy costs that will help fund a 10-year plan of new projects.
“We don’t want to see the credit card run up like it was in the past,” he said.
White shared a story from a senior voter who is concerned about the cost of boiling water. She said individual ratepayers can’t support the cost of energy infrastructure and instead the NDP government will pay for projects directly with government funds.
“We need to view that investment as infrastructure spending. It’s unsustainable to say that 44,000 people can pay for that,” White said.
The First Nations procurement policy, introduced by the Liberal government in early March, has produced controversy among some contractors.
The Yukon First Nation Chamber of Commerce asked each party representative if they supported the policy.
The NDP and the Liberal Party back the policy as it stands now, although Pillai said the party is dedicated to “make sure this policy works for everyone.” White said she supported the policy but the Liberals “mishandled the communication” which allowed the Yukon Party to “sow fear.”
Dixon said his party “agreed very much with the objective of the policy” but said the Liberal government failed to properly consult the business community.
“I think what needs to be done here is that we need to put this on hold, we need to go back to the table, work with First Nations, the business community and others to achieve a policy that will meet the outcomes and objectives that the policy seeks to achieve,” he said.
Overall, the mood of the debate was slightly more combative than the earlier debate on the environment. All three parties traded barbs on past failures and promises.
In closing remarks, Pillai said the Liberal government brought the territory out of a recession and protected businesses during the pandemic. White chose housing as a rallying issue and contrasted herself to the two other parties, encouraging Yukoners to “choose something different.” Dixon said he can offer better than the last four years and said the private sector will be at the forefront of the recovery effort.
Other questions posed to the candidates included mining legislation, the growth of agriculture, capital stimulus projects, cost of housing, high-speed Internet and procurement transparency.
The full debate can be watched online at yukonchamber.com.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org