March 8, 2021
Brad’s speech in response to the 2021/22 Budget:
“Mr. Cathers: I am pleased to rise today on behalf of our Yukon Party team as the Official Opposition Finance critic. I will also be making some other remarks in relation to my other critic roles as well as in my capacity as the MLA for Lake Laberge.
I would like to begin this afternoon — as we start another Spring Sitting, I would like to thank my constituents for the opportunity to continue to work with them and for them as the MLA for Lake Laberge. I would also like to thank Currie, our colleagues, and our staff for their support as I perform my duties on behalf of our team. Last but not least, I would like to thank all Yukoners from across this beautiful land we call home who have trusted us and supported us in the work we do on their behalf.
In speaking to this final budget of the Liberal regime, I will talk about where things can be done better and some of our concerns with government spending. As well, there are also things in this budget that we support, including a number of things that we pushed the government to do and are appreciative that eventually they did listen to.
Mr. Speaker, as I mentioned, this is the fifth and the final budget of this Liberal government. Yukoners are telling us every day how eager they are for a change in government. It is our job to be the government-in-waiting and we are ready for the job. Along with Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon, my fellow MLAs, and all of our candidates and volunteers who are part of the Yukon Party team, I look forward to seeking the support of Yukoners in the upcoming election.
Mr. Speaker, the winds of change are blowing. Earlier today, we saw another indication that the Liberal ship is on the rocks and slowly sinking, as one of their MLAs crossed the floor and made some strongly worded comments about the Liberal government and the Premier on the way out. It also leaves the Liberals with a fragile majority of one seat. This means that if just one Liberal MLA leaves the sinking ship, the government may be unable to pass their budget.
As quoted by CBC, in resigning from the Liberal caucus, the MLA for Mayo-Tatchun said this: “I am deeply saddened that I have been pushed to the point that I have lost confidence in the Yukon Liberals and Premier … Our communities deserve better than what they’ve been given by this Liberal government.”
A headline in tonight’s Whitehorse Star quotes him as saying, “Liberals prove a ‘deep disappointment’”. After falling to last place in the polls, this is one more indication of a Liberal government in trouble. We are also reminded of history and what happened with the last Liberal government when three MLAs resigned from caucus and then the dominoes started falling. A few months later, that Liberal government lost the election and was reduced to just one seat in the Legislative Assembly. Perhaps history will repeat itself in the 2020‑21 territorial election. When MLAs start leaving the ship like this, it’s never a good sign for the government; it is never a good sign for the captain. The decks of the Liberal ship are awash and the ship is listing in the water. I expect that the Premier will dismiss this as he dismisses all criticism, but his government is clearly in trouble.
Turning from the news of today, on this beautiful March day, I would like acknowledge the fact that it is International Women’s Day. I would like to thank all the women who have helped me personally in my life and in my career. I would not be who I am or where I am without you. I am thankful to have you as friends, family, colleagues, advisors, staff, and supporters. You make the Yukon a better place and our world a better place.
In speaking to this budget, as I noted, I will talk about where things can be done better and about concerns with government spending, as well as identifying where we think that the government has done some things that we do agree with. In particular, I will highlight those items that we have worked for on behalf of Yukoners and are pleased to see the government respond to, in response to our efforts on behalf of the people who raised them with us.
I will begin by talking about some of those items that we have pushed for and are pleased to see in the budget. As people who follow the Legislative Assembly may recall, the Yukon Party Official Opposition has spent most of this term expressing concern about the Liberals’ inadequate funding for the Yukon Hospital Corporation. Members will recall that this began in the fall of 2017, when we expressed concern about the fact that the increase for the hospital’s budget that year was just one percent — less than the rate of inflation and much less than the rate of forced growth.
That neglect has continued throughout the Liberal mandate, including in the fiscal year ending last March, which, of course, was the 2019‑20 fiscal year. The Yukon Hospital Corporation’s own year-end report shows that the government left them with a $3.9‑million hole in their funding that fiscal year. So, in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2020, they wrapped up that year with a $3.9‑million gap in funding for hospitals. The hospitals did not receive funding to fill that gap until after the start of the current fiscal year. Mr. Speaker, as you know, that literally means that the Liberal government didn’t provide our hospitals with adequate funding until we were in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
I’m relieved to see by looking at the budget this year that clearly the political pressure brought by the Official Opposition and others has resulted in the government providing the hospitals with a reasonable increase to O&M funding this year. While I do look forward to seeing a more detailed breakdown of the funding — including clarity on how much of this actually represents an increase to the hospital’s core budget this year — it does seem that the increase is in fact more realistic in keeping with the hospitals’ needs than we’ve seen throughout most of this government’s time in office.
Now, I expect that the Premier may rise and spin the numbers, as he has in the past, and try to confuse listeners between new programs and cost pressures and increased drug costs and actual core funding, but I would encourage any Yukoners who are wondering about which version of events in the House is correct to simply look at the testimony provided here in the Legislative Assembly by representatives of the Yukon Hospital Corporation when they appeared last fall on November 19, 2020, as well as when they appeared here the previous November, and then look at the hospitals’ annual reports. The numbers are clear. The testimonies of the Yukon Hospital Corporation’s witnesses speak for themselves and they both prove what I have said here in the past and what I’m saying here again today.
Mr. Speaker, another area that the Liberal government was slow to act on is the new secure medical unit at Whitehorse General Hospital. As members know, when the emergency room expansion project was done by the previous Yukon Party government, there was a deliberate decision to put in place what was referred to as “shelled-in space” above the ER that was envisioning the potential for future use, with a secure medical unit being what was conceptually envisioned a that point in time.
The reason for doing that, of course, was to ensure that both the cost of the project and the speed of the emergency room project were not delayed while allowing for the potential that, when the next phase of capital upgrades occurred at the hospital, the work could be done substantially cheaper than if an addition were required or a new space were required to be built at that point in time. Hence the decision by the hospital and government to do that so-called “shelled-in space” above the emergency room.
Now, in the area of the secure medical unit, after we pressed the government repeatedly on the topic, the government did take some action to commit to developing a new secure medical unit at Whitehorse General Hospital. However, after making a ministerial statement committing to move forward with it, the project seemed to have stalled for months because of the Premier and the minister’s lack of action on the matter. Now we are pleased to see that there is funding in this year’s budget for proceeding with the secure medical unit project, but the government can also correctly expect that we will continue during the remainder of their time in office — however long or short that may be — to press them on this topic and look for action, not just commitments.
Also on the issue of funding for the hospital itself, we will look for information, including a more detailed breakdown of the funding being provided and information about when that funding is actually being provided to the Hospital Corporation, including what is provided in the interim supply and what will be made available in April versus potentially later in the year, because cash flow does matter to government corporations, most especially to the one that is responsible for delivering our hospital needs.
So, we are pleased to see the funding in the budget for the secure medical unit. Another area in health care that the Liberals were slow to act on was the Meditech replacement project, now finally underway and renamed “1Health”. That’s another area where we went through hours of debate in this Legislative Assembly between the Premier and me, as well as other colleagues on behalf of the Yukon Party bringing forward this issue, to have the Liberal government focus on the past rather than focusing on the needs of the day and the needs of the future. In that area, after years of very slow progress, we are pleased that they did commit to it. They have renamed it “1Health” — the name is just a name — and does include funding in this year’s budget to continue forward with this project.
Next, another area that I would like to highlight is that I am pleased to see that the government has continued a pattern we started of regularly including funding for new fire trucks and ambulances in the budget on a more regular basis than had previously occurred. I recall my time as Minister of Health and Social Services, which at the time was responsible for EMS, and going on a tour of rural facilities and being made aware of the fact that staff didn’t even have confidence that some of the ambulances would actually start if necessary. We took steps to modernize the fleet of ambulances. We did so, as well, with fire trucks.
During our time in government, in addition to building fire halls and performing renovations at facilities — such as in Ibex Valley where we increased the water storage capacity of that facility — we were pleased to see new fire trucks roll out across the territory, including new pumper tanker trucks to all of the fire halls within the Whitehorse area, including the two within my riding — Hootalinqua and Ibex Valley. I am pleased to see that, in this area, the government has largely continued to do what we had begun in that area, by ensuring that the capital needs of EMS and fire are considered in each year’s budget.
However, there continue to be issues, such as I’ve heard from rural fire halls, with some of the less exciting equipment such as pike poles and pumps in some cases being either missing and having challenges with getting them replaced or being old enough that they have issues with the reliability of the operation. I would encourage the government to focus on those needs as well and not simply on the more obvious and more photo-opportunity worthy, shall we say, needs such as fire trucks for those facilities.
Also, as the side events in Keno earlier this year have reminded everyone, there are gaps in fire service in Yukon. I noticed today that the government has announced a review of the current state of the fire service in rural Yukon with special attention to the community of Keno, according to their release.
This is a positive step, but it is one very much at the eleventh hour of this Liberal government. Sadly, Mr. Speaker, for people who have lost homes and businesses due to fire, this action also does come too late.
I do want to acknowledge that we realize the challenges that exist with providing services in rural Yukon, including the fact that, for EMS and fire, government and citizens largely depend on people who volunteer and provide those services, but ultimately, when gaps like that occur and when people see homes or businesses destroyed as a result, it does draw attention to the problem, and the problem clearly needs a solution.
I also want to emphasize the appreciation that my colleagues and I have for our rural EMS and fire volunteers and note that any initiative to support either service, if it is going to be successful, needs to recognize the importance of doing a better job of supporting our EMS and fire volunteers.
Similarly, the government needs to recognize the challenges faced by Search and Rescue, look at how it supports those volunteers, and do a better job in that area.
Another area that we are pleased to see in the budget is government taking some additional actions on wildfire risk mitigation. We would like to again thank the Yukon Wood Products Association, FireSmart Whitehorse, and other businesses and citizens who have been part of coming together and urging governments to take additional actions to improve wildfire risk reduction, to recognize and raise public awareness of the fact of some of the problems that have occurred in areas such as Fort McMurray, Telegraph Creek, and Lower Post, as well as fires in California that proved very tragic for those areas, and really recognize the fact that, through those private citizens and businesses who have worked hard out of a passion for this issue, we really all do owe them credit for the fact that they worked hard to put this issue on the radar screen for governments of every order in the territory and draw attention to the risk that exists within Yukon communities because, while we all do love the beauty of the boreal forest, we also have been sadly reminded of the fact of the fire risk that also is brought by having coniferous trees close to homes and communities.
In the situation of those jurisdictions that I mentioned, the wildfires that have occurred there have reminded us of the tragic consequences of what can happen if wildfire risk reduction is not done effectively.
I would like to give credit to them for the work that they have done on this. As those who followed past sittings will recall, we supported those efforts shortly after they began and urged government to listen to those citizens and businesses. It is something that really, as many have characterized it — those fires in places like Telegraph Creek, Lower Post, and Fort McMurray were a bit of a wake-up call to people about the potential risks. I would just emphasize again — as I have in the House — that the solutions to this carry not just the need to reduce risk but also provide — if done right — potential opportunities for businesses as well as First Nation development corporations and others to see economic benefit — to do targeted harvesting and make use of that for uses such as biomass and other uses of the timber and brush-clearing of the area. We believe that there is opportunity in this as well.
We are pleased to see that it is a small start by government in taking action, as was pushed by Yukon citizens. Much more needs to be done in this area, but we do acknowledge this small start and we are pleased to see this part of the budget highlights for continued funding for a project announced last year.
Mr. Speaker, I am also pleased to see government continue some of these successful programs that we started during our time in government, including the well program and the microgeneration program.
As my colleague, the Member for Kluane, reminded us earlier today in talking about last March, the Yukon — and indeed Canada and the world — has seen a year like no other within our lifetimes.
When we began the Spring Sitting last year, we were in the early stages of the COVID‑19 health situation rolling out across the world. If memory serves, March 11, I believe, was the date that it was declared a pandemic officially. But in the early stages leading up to the official declaration, we were watching the news from around the world, but I think it’s fair to say that the impact of this problem had not really sunk in to very many people. It was something that — past history and epidemiology had led to government staff and other planners warning us for years that there was the potential of another pandemic at some point. There was work as well that was done around the 2007 time period in the wake of the SARS epidemic and the H1N1 preparations. There was pandemic preparedness planning that went on in the Yukon, across Canada, and in some other jurisdictions. But largely, as time went on, everyone got busy with life and the events of last March came as a bit of a surprise. But as my colleague, the Member for Kluane, has pointed out, we saw a situation last March where the government was saying that it would be business as usual for tourism. It has been anything but business as usual for tourism or Yukon businesses.
There have been some that are doing well during the pandemic. There are others that are doing relatively well, others that are limping by, and others where it has simply shut them down. So, the situations and the challenges that Yukoners in the private sector — particularly in tourism, in restaurants, and in some other exposed parts of the business community — have faced — those challenges vary widely from business to business, from community to community, and from person to person. But unfortunately, what we have seen with the government tabling the budget is that some of the rhetoric about how great the growth in GDP projects are has been very tone deaf to the reality being faced by a number of small business owners in the territory and employees. I have to remind members that, if your business is suffering — if you are suffering — hearing that someone else is doing well and that the overall GDP projections look good is very, very cold comfort.
As my colleague noted earlier, people do want clarity, and unfortunately, in the government’s plan for reopening, what we don’t see is a lot of clarity for Yukon’s private sector. Now, most people understand very well the fact that the situation may change, but what I have heard from people is that they want government to listen to them, to treat them as adults, and to provide them with the information and clarity about (a) what government expects and (b) what some of the variables are that might change that. For example, as my colleague, the Member for Kluane, touched on, there are people in the tourism sector wanting to know whether they should be looking at opening up for the season or simply shutting down for this year and trying to make money somewhere else.
I have heard, as well — without compromising the personal privacy of a constituent who contacted me about it — someone who is in the tourism sector who is wanting information about whether he is likely to have a season — he knows that could change, but he wants to understand if it is likely that he is going to have a season. If not, that may affect both what he does for work and what he is able to keep in terms of stock and assets, because there is an effect on that. For many businesses, there is a cost to simply keeping somewhat ready to open up.
So, the government can rely on platitudes and pat themselves on the back for doing well, but again, what many Yukon businesses are looking for is more clarity about what is likely to occur this year and information on what the metrics are that might change that so that they can plan and make the key decision about whether they are trying to open up for the summer or simply cutting their losses, trying to manage with something else, and operating next year.
Now, those have been some of the problems with the Yukon’s pandemic response, and of course, the responsibility for that lies solely on the elected government, but I want to move on with a non-partisan note and recognize one of the areas that has been doing well right now in the response.
I would like to thank the Yukoners who have worked so hard on the territory’s rollout of the COVID‑19 vaccinations. I know that this includes health professionals and managers, some of whom had retired and have chosen to re-enter the workforce due to their own personal commitment to our territory and to their fellow Yukoners. I note that, while we are doing well as a territory for vaccination rates in comparison to other jurisdictions in Canada, the fortune that we have in the north by being able to get more vaccines per capita than southern jurisdictions has played a major role in it, but vaccines are of no use without the people who get those vaccinations out there. It is through the work of these Yukoners who deserve the credit for the successful rollout.
While politicians may try to claim credit for this work, the simple fact is that the heavy lifting is being done by front-line staff and those behind the scenes who are making this happen, including health care professionals, administrative professionals, managers, organizational support staff, IT professionals, and others, including those involved in transporting the vaccines. I am probably missing someone in that list, but I would like to acknowledge the work of every single Yukoner who is playing a part in this and recognize that they are doing this work because of their commitment to the Yukon and to our fellow citizens. It is not something that any one of us on any side of this House can claim credit for. We must give credit where credit is due — to the Yukoners who are making this happen and are providing the opportunity where our families have the opportunity to get vaccinated, which is simply not the case in southern Canada for most people.
Thank you, again, to everyone for all that you have done as part of this. Please keep up the good work and keep going.
I’m going to switch now to talking about some of the key problems with this budget in terms of the overall costs that we see here. I would note that, while the individual items within a budget often get more attention, it’s also important to look at the financial resources and the spending trajectory. Those amounts are fascinating for those who are interested in numbers and less interesting for some, but they are fundamentally very important.
I want to begin by painting a picture, and what I’m going to use to paint the picture is the Public Accounts and the government’s own projections. Now, as members know, the Public Accounts are prepared by government and audited by the Auditor General of Canada. When the Liberals took office, they had money in the bank left to them by the previous government, they had net financial assets, and they have taken this from — at the point of taking office, I should note, it was around $100 million in net financial assets. From that, we’ve seen the Liberal government, during their four and a half years in office, take the territory from positive net financial assets — in simple terms, money in the bank — to an anticipated net debt this year of $81.5 million and $330.5 million in net debt projected for 2023-24.
Now, it’s important as well to note that, during the time this Liberal government has been in office, the territory’s revenues have actually grown at a healthy rate every year, largely due to annual increases in the territorial funding formula and other federal transfers. Despite this, they have spent money faster than it was coming in almost every single year. This is another area where the government rhetoric and their actions have not aligned with each other. So, again, revenues grew significantly every year, but despite that, almost every single year that they’ve been in office, the Liberals have spent money faster than was coming in.
The annual increases to spending are unsustainable and explain why, despite inheriting the best financial situation of any new government in Yukon history, the Liberals have taken our territory’s finances from in the black to a lot of red ink. There’s a lot of red ink on the balance sheet, and it was avoidable if the government had chosen to manage the territory’s finances more prudently. They can correctly blame some of the spending recently on the pandemic, but their financial management had the Yukon on the wrong spending trajectory long before the pandemic hit.
Let’s talk about what the numbers tell us. The Liberal government’s first budget was in 2017-18. At the end of that year, the audited Public Accounts show that revenues increased at a rate of three percent. Expenses grew at a rate of two percent. That was the only year, it might be argued, that the Liberal government actually exercised some degree of financial restraint, although others would point out that delays in delivering capital projects contributed significantly to that financial picture. According to page 3 of the Public Accounts, lower-than-expected expenses totalled $30 million that year, and of course, a significant portion of that is due to the delays in delivering on capital projects.
So, the Liberal government changed that the next year in 2018-19 where again, according to the audited Public Accounts — and most of this information by the way is on page 3 of the Public Accounts. For the 2018-19 fiscal year, revenues grew at a healthy rate of five percent, but expenses that year increased by a whopping 10 percent over the previous year — 10 percent, which is an increase of $123 million in just one year.
The next year, in 2019‑20, revenues again grew at a healthy rate of five percent, but once again, the Liberal government spent money faster than it was coming in, growing expenses at an unsustainable rate of six percent. Once again, that information can be found on page 3 of the audited Public Accounts for that year.
Now, fast-forward to this year, where the budget for the current fiscal year shows revenues growing again by 5.1 percent, but net expenditures are forecast to grow at a rate of 8.8 percent. So again, the trend continues — 5.1 percent in increased revenue — which is not bad — but net expenditures are expected to grow at a rate of 8.8 percent. I would point out that this is looking at the handout that the government provided us at the briefing. It is not just our calculations; it is found on the 2021‑22 O&M summary provided by government to us last week.
So, to put that in real dollar terms: This year, we are receiving $63 million more under the territorial funding formula alone — the largest transfer from Ottawa — but the Liberal government is spending beyond our means again and their plans show them doing that well beyond this current year as well. Their budget shows this year ending with $81.5 million in net debt and taking the finances deeper into the red to a whopping $330 million in net debt by 2023-24. This is despite having net financial assets when they took office.
So, in dollar terms, here are some of the annual increases by the government — again, I am going off the Public Accounts for reference, just for clarity and the fact that members know that what is budgeted and what is actually done can be two different things. So, looking at the Public Accounts, the annual increase in expenditures in the fiscal year ending 2017-18 — according to the Public Accounts — was $20 million. The next fiscal year, 2018-19, that grew to a whopping $123 million. Again, that is growth in just one year of $123 million. In 2019‑20 — again, according to the Public Accounts — there was an increase over the previous year of $81.5 million. Then, looking at the current fiscal year, the increase over the previous year — again, this is budgeted according to the government’s budget, not actual — the increase is $96.5 million. So, again, for a territory of 40,000, that is a pretty substantial increase in most of those years and that is not a sustainable trajectory.
As we look at the budget, it’s also very obvious that 2021 is an election year. It contains a long list of promises — some of which are believable, some of which are not — and a list of items — including ones that the government promised in 2016 — that are currently in their pile of things that they promised but haven’t actually delivered on.
I would also draw attention to another example of something that we’re pleased to see in the budget: the commitment to midwifery. However, the government, after years of delay from when they originally committed to implementing it, has now, this year — at the tail end of their mandate — implemented it in a way that is actually going to create a gap in service. That’s not good planning.
There was a way to do it better, but unfortunately, through the top-down, autocratic approach of this government, they came up with a model to plow forward and claim that they’ve checked the box on delivering on midwifery but do it while creating a gap in services that is impacting Yukoners this year. I know that this issue came up at the Community Midwifery Association Yukon meeting. I believe that the Minister of Community Services probably got an earful on that and I know that we in the Official Opposition have heard those concerns loud and clear from Yukoners about this gap in services.
I want to point out, again, that — especially after something that the Liberals committed to, as did the Yukon Party and the Third Party in the last territorial election — they took almost the entire mandate to deliver it and, when they delivered it, they delivered a gap in services — not a seamless move to funded and regulated midwifery. It could have been done better; it simply wasn’t. They rushed it through at the eleventh hour, and they didn’t get the transition right.
I have to remind all members that, beyond the Legislative Assembly and the political debates which occur here, there are real people being affected, there are expectant mothers being affected, and there are Yukon families being affected. When a gap in service occurs, unfortunately, people — Yukon citizens — pay the price for government’s mistakes.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I noted, it is concerning that, when we see the fiscal and economic outlook, the net financial debt is forecast to increase over the next three years. That refers to spending in response to COVID‑19 as well as major investments in — and I quote — “needed infrastructure”. It is concerning again when government chooses to spend beyond their means but try to use the right branding campaign to convince Yukoners that spending at an unsustainable rate is somehow a good idea.
I would also like to talk about the fact — in terms of getting things right or not getting things right — an issue that is, like the budget, coming into effect on April 1. That is part of the implementation of the Yukon agriculture policy which the government delivered last year. The policy was finalized a year late, according to their own target, and unfortunately, as part of the new rules that they’ve applied, I am hearing from constituents — I know that a number of my colleagues have also heard this from constituents — about people who have suddenly found out that, without any public consultation on the details, there are new rules being applied that will make it harder to get a building permit on your agricultural property. This includes for existing farmers and for people buying a new piece of property.
As the Member for Mount Lorne-Southern Lakes may be aware — since one of the sales that fell through was in his own riding — this has created a situation where people attempting to purchase agricultural property have looked at it and determined that the new restrictions would make it impossible for them to build a house or cabin, move there, and begin developing it, and it would limit their ability to build a primary residence within the first couple of years of being there. Understandably, this causes someone to walk away from doing that. It also has added an immediate negative value on existing agricultural land. These new restrictions — especially those on building permits — are not helping the housing situation any when government has proposed these actions.
So, I would urge the government to take a hard look at what they’re planning to bring into place on April 1 and recognize that it has actually had a negative effect on the value of people’s existing land and done so without consulting with those people. It’s negatively affecting building permits, and unfortunately, the intent of this policy has been warped in its implementation and is actually negatively impacting the finances of Yukoners today and negatively impacting their ability to develop their agricultural property as well. So, again, it’s not just a matter of ticking off the box and saying that you’ve delivered on your commitment; it’s important that you work with Yukoners, listen to Yukoners, and deliver the right policy and the right results.
Again, of course, that has been a theme throughout this pandemic — that the Liberal government has very much, from the top down, been very focused on a top-down approach to managing the pandemic and has shown a resistance to working with Yukoners on the details of things, including the rules of funding programs and the rules of — or the details, pardon me, of the rules that are affecting people’s businesses and their lives.
As Currie Dixon, the Leader of the Yukon Party, noted during interviews after seeing the budget, we see no path in this budget to get through the pandemic. We see no path forward for the economy. That’s a troubling indicator for the private sector. We know that the tourism industry is on life support, and what everyone is looking for is a path forward and it’s not there.
So, Mr. Acting Speaker, I would also like to note — as you will recall — that earlier today, we discussed the territorial debt limit. Again, we’ve seen a lack of transparency from the Premier and Finance minister on what the government is or isn’t doing and might or might not be planning on doing in that area. The fact that the Premier dismissed being called on his statements in the House conflicting with his letter of nine days later is troubling.
For the Premier to lay two mutually incompatible statements out in the public record and then claim that there is no difference is not just troubling, but it is really not in keeping with government’s commitment on being transparent with Yukoners. Any decision to plunge the territory further into debt is something that will affect future generations of Yukoners because they will have to pay for it. In contrast to the current government, we have been clear about the fact that we believe a decision to borrow money should be made in the Legislative Assembly, not behind closed doors in Cabinet, and there should be the opportunity for the public to know about what is being contemplated before government signs a commitment to large debt that they and their children will be forced to pay for whether or not they agreed with government’s decision.
It is important to remember — and it is unfortunate for some of our colleagues across the way that they are about to get a rude reminder of this — that we sit in seats that the public owns. The seats belong to the voters. The titles are temporary and the seats are on loan, and they are on loan from Yukon citizens. Ultimately, in the coming election, Yukoners will choose who they believe represents them and who they believe will actually listen to them, rather than simply doing what they believe to be best.
Mr. Acting Speaker, another area that I should touch on as well in terms of government proposals that are problematic, as the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources will be well aware, the agricultural land is being threatened, not just by the changes under the agriculture policy, but also by zoning proposals in the Shallow Bay area as well as the government’s draft wetlands policy — both of which go after titled property and are causing uncertainty and fear for Yukoners who would be affected by this. In the case of Shallow Bay zoning, I would note that this zoning imposes a just-under-200-foot — 60-metre — no-development buffer after the fact on titled property and that this includes people’s homes.
When you, as a citizen, see a proposal that actually suggests that, if the zoning is passed in the current form and your house burned down, you wouldn’t be able to replace it, that is very concerning. Quite frankly, that proposal should never have been made. It is unacceptable that it is even out there. It has no place in the Yukon.
I would note as well that, in addition to the people who are affected by it today, there are many Yukoners who have a house, building, or property within 200 feet of a creek, lake, river, or pond. If it begins in Shallow Bay, the concern for them is: Where does it stop? Of course, in the area of the wetlands policy, as members will know, this is of great concern to farmers who have been told by government officials that it could potentially apply on their titled property. It is a concern as well to the placer miners who see this as just one more threat imposed by the Liberal government to their way of life.
I will move on from that area for a moment, but I do want to note that, of course, within this budget and in addition to the items that I highlighted, there are some other areas that we do agree with. As members will know, we do not have confidence in the government and will not be supporting their budget, but we do look forward to going through parts of it, as well as identifying other areas where we think that actions have been taken that are reasonable or that may not differ drastically in some cases from what we would do if in government. We look forward to also presenting to Yukoners in more detail our own vision for taking the territory in a positive direction and responding to the needs of Yukon citizens in a positive way.
I would note as well that I am pleased that, after again some delay in the government actually responding to the needs of the school in my riding — Hidden Valley elementary school — we see that there is money committed for new learning spaces and modular classrooms. I understand, based on a letter from the minister, that one that is on that list does include Hidden Valley School. I look forward to seeing this in that area.
I would also — I had intended to mention earlier on the subject of agriculture that one other thing that the government is doing as part of the growing list of things that they’ve done that actually make life harder on farmers — we see the commitments on page 7 that talk in glowing terms about economic development in the agriculture sector, but I hear regularly from farmers in my riding and elsewhere about problems that they’ve had with government. For many, government is either their greatest problem or their greatest source of uncertainty. Despite the work that was done by the previous government on the agriculture policy and local food policy and commitments that were made by this Liberal government, I’ve heard from constituents about government commitments made to increase government purchasing of locally grown products that have not really translated into reality — yet another case where the announcement and the photo opportunity have sounded great, but the follow-through has been absent.
I have also heard concerns from constituents about how the government is reactivating the concept of developing Stevens Quarry. Previously, in 2013, the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources had listened to the concerns of farmers, other business operators, and surrounding residents about the negative impact that developing that project would have and rejected the YESAB application to develop Stevens Quarry.
As the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources will know, among the people most concerned about the impacts of this proposed quarry — the government is currently spending money trying to reactivate the previously shutdown proposal — are Yukon farmers who are worried about the impact of it being directly across the river from them or directly adjacent to them, and this includes cattle operations that are very concerned about the incompatibility of the quarry being right there with their own plans.
Again, we see government paying lip service to the agriculture sector but causing some Yukoners to question whether they can continue with their farming plans as the government proceeds with ignoring past public opposition and plowing forward with a project that the Liberal government seems to support. There will be more to come on that in the future, but as members will know, the minister has been presented with a petition containing a couple hundred names of people opposed to development of that both because of those impacts and the negative impact on the research forest area to which it is immediately adjacent and which is much-prized as a recreational area by people out in the area as well as in Whitehorse. Again, this is something that is just one more reason that people are looking forward to the next election.
When looking at the budget — unfortunately, this continued pattern that members will recall me raising every single sitting since the Liberals took office about the decline in the information made available in the budget highlights — while it has gone from — it used to be typically 11 pages of information — it went down, at its worst, to four pages, heavy on infographics. It has increased this year to six pages, but some of the graphs and the pictures are bigger and there is a significant amount of it which talks about past budgets, not the current fiscal year. Again, there are areas where, even as people who are very familiar with budgets, as we go through looking at the budget and the capital plan, it is unclear what the costs of certain projects are. It is unclear what communities are seeing projects this year. In some cases, where it does mention them, there is a very wide range on the price tag for those projects.
Additionally, in looking at the budget — I will give another example where government has continued with some of the energy programs that we had initiated — such as the good energy program, the microgeneration program, and energy rebates — when looking at page 5 of the budget highlights. Under the banner of the government’s tagline Our Clean Future, it talks about actions such as those. But even for somebody who is very familiar with the budget and has previously been the minister responsible for some of these areas, if one looks for the public transparency of what this document actually tells them, it doesn’t indicate how much of the money for energy retrofit projects or residential retrofits or energy rebates or green infrastructure and retrofits is new money and how much of it is simply carrying forward money from previous fiscal years and slapping a brand new logo on it. So, the transparency is missing.
Mr. Speaker, there’s much of this that, again, I’ll delve into more details on as we get into other parts of budget debate. We are at this stage — because of the somewhat opaque nature of some of the budget documents — unfortunately, it takes us time going through this information with department officials sometimes to actually gain a clear understanding of what the high-level numbers actually mean — what is new money, what is simply repackaged and rebranded money being carried forward from previous years. Unfortunately, that is all part of the trend in government that we’ve seen of just less information being available to Yukoners to understand it.
This would seem to be a good opportunity to mention again the frequent complaints that we get about the website and how it has become worse during the Liberal time in office, including that the staff directory is often very out of date for departments. If one is looking for information on local area planning or zoning initiatives, for example — those used to be readily accessible through the branch web pages. Now they’re sometimes difficult to find, even if you know how to use the website. Ultimately, it’s part of a general trend of talking a good line on openness and transparency but becoming less open and less transparent about the facts.
I think that I will move to wrap up my remarks at this point here, but I do want to make a few more additional points in closing — that this has been a very difficult year for people. The effects of it have not been universally difficult on everyone. It is probably fair to say that coping with the restrictions related to the pandemic and the economic impacts have all created some degree of difficulty for most Yukoners, but those effects are not universally spread across the board. It has been a much tougher year for some people than for others.
For people who are worried about their future and whether they can revive a business that they own that has been impacted by the pandemic, they are looking for more clarity from the government on what the path forward would look like. They need to make their own decisions as to whether they can hope to reopen or simply shut down and do something else until later. They are really looking for answers from government, and unfortunately, they have seen a tendency toward a lot of platitudes but not much in terms of details. It really seems to many of them that government doesn’t want to be pinned down on the details. It is easier to make an announcement that is vague — and they can’t really be pinned to the wall on it later. Unfortunately, in taking that approach, the Liberal government does a disservice to those Yukoners who are looking for help, who are looking for as much clarity as possible in information about what government expects to happen, when they expect it to happen, and what the key factors are likely to be that might change that.
Again, it has been a very difficult year for people. It has required Yukoners, other Canadians, and people around the world to make adjustments in their lives, some minor and some significant. As I reminded the House, while people are in a situation where almost everyone is experiencing some difficulty related to the pandemic, not everyone is experiencing the same amount of difficulty. Some people are making uncomfortable adjustments. Other people are looking at their future and trying to figure out how they are going to recover from the impact that the pandemic has had on their businesses or their lives.
I have heard from constituents and others who approached 2020 with optimism and are now, in some cases, just trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other, plan their way through, and hopefully recovery from this.
It is a big impact for small business owners in a number of sectors, and for many of these situations, it’s also a situation where not only is their business at risk, but there is also substantial risk personally in terms of their financial future.
While we do agree with some of the actions taken by government, we will continue, during their remaining time in office, to push them on areas where government can and should do better, because Yukoners who are experiencing tough times due to the pandemic and other factors are expecting us to listen to them, expecting us to bring forward those concerns, and are hoping that government will understand the importance of these issues to them.
Mr. Speaker, with that, I think I will wrap up my remarks for now. I look forward to further comments later on during debate on the budget. I look forward to providing additional comments in areas related to my critic portfolios as well as to things that are important to my constituents. With that, Mr. Speaker, I will cede the floor to someone else.” (March 8, 2021, Hansard pages 2575 to 2583)