This time last year, Yukon MLAs, like the rest of us, were just starting to figure out that 2020 was going to be an unusual year.
The spring legislative sitting, which usually runs until late April, was shut down after just two weeks over concerns about COVID-19. The Liberals made deals with the opposition parties to ram through the budget in record time, in part at the urging of Chief Medical Officer of Health Brendan Hanley.
That budget, which showed a modest $4.1-million surplus, was blown apart by the pandemic. By the time the fall economic update rolled around, Yukon was showing a $31.6-million deficit, thanks to increased public health spending and a drop in tax revenues caused by the economic slowdown.
Even though Yukon has avoided the worst of the lockdowns, infections and mass death experienced elsewhere, economic damage from the pandemic is still being felt. The tourism industry is in tatters and mineral exploration has taken a major hit.
That's why Thursday's budget figures to be interesting. Finance officials have said that money flowing from the federal government will offset some of the fiscal damage from COVID-19, but we won't know exactly how much until the budget is tabled Thursday afternoon.
Another question is whether the budget will attempt to slow spending to put the territory back into surplus, or to keep spending. There are genuine public policy reasons to punt on balancing the budget this year: helping people and businesses hit hard by the pandemic, or building infrastructure that will help fuel future growth.
And there's the political reality: government spending tends to be politically popular and initiating an austerity drive right before an election is probably bad strategy.
An election, but when?
This is the other big question: exactly how close are we to a territorial election? A vote has to take place by mid-November. But do the Liberals aim for late spring, shortly after widespread vaccination has taken place? Or do they wait until fall, betting that the pandemic settles down even further?
The experience of the provinces doesn't exactly offer much clarity. British Columbia's election went off fine, but Newfoundland and Labrador's has been thoroughly derailed thanks to a major outbreak of variant COVID-19 there. Elections Yukon has said it will be ready for an election by mid-March and has introduced changes to make it easier to vote without going to a polling station.
Premier Sandy Silver has repeatedly declined to offer any hints. Silver flatly refused to even engage with the question Wednesday when asked by reporters.
Meanwhile, all three parties have been busy nominating candidates, pestering their supporters for donations and jockeying for position ahead of the election call.
Signs point to a close race
Last week the Whitehorse Star reported that a poll of 600 Yukon residents conducted by Leger found the three main parties effectively tied, with the NDP at 33 per cent, the Yukon Party at 32 and Liberals at 31. The Star reported the poll was conducted by one of the parties, but didn't say which one, suggesting a strategic leak.
The NDP have flatly denied it was them and the Liberals have ties to a different polling firm. The Yukon Party circulated a fundraising email crowing loudly about the poll's findings and, for the first time, taking election-style shots at the NDP (the two opposition parties tend to work together fairly cordially in the Legislative Assembly). So make of that what you will.
Finally, there's currently nothing on the government's legislative agenda, apart from the budget. Recently, many bills have taken more than one sitting to pass and often there will be government legislation awaiting MLAs when the assembly resumes.
But the Liberals passed everything that was on their to-do list by the end of the lengthy fall sitting, 10 non-budget bills in all. There's nothing stopping the government from introducing more this spring. But, technically at least, there's also nothing stopping Silver from asking Commissioner Angélique Bernard to dissolve the legislature at any time, triggering an election.
The first couple of weeks of the spring sitting should give us a better idea of the government's plans. Until then, the outlook remains clear as the mud of a Yukon spring.