November 9, 2005

Can you smell something? (from November 9 issue of the Yukon News)

There’s an odour wafting through the halls of the Yukon legislature nowadays.

It’s not the tang of wet winter boots or of drying wool.

It’s the smell of fear.

After the daily Question Period, there’s a brief lull — an expectant pause that sees reporters gather in the legislature’s lobby to ask politicians follow-up questions to the daily issues.

These days, they wait. And wait.

Cabinet is usually a no show.

Once in a while, if the newshounds are lucky, Premier Dennis Fentie might emerge to answer a couple of questions.

He’s the Yukon Party’s designated hitter, its one-window approach to spin.

His cabinet colleagues have to be ambushed as they scuttle to the safety of their offices.

They have become increasingly adept at avoiding the spotlight.

So, when Fentie’s gone, as he was last week, the government’s public face vanishes.
Without him, the caucus morphs into downcast marionettes reciting nothing but their handlers’ carefully worded scripts during Question Period.

Afterwards, you can’t get them to say a thing.

Now Fentie’s back, but not much has changed — save for the requisite Fentie-isms of answering opposition questions with lists of “economic achievements,” peppered with some sardonic comebacks.

Watch Question Period, and you might get the impression all’s well with Fentie’s crew.

But behind the scenes there’s a whiff of something else.

Fentie’s government always seems to be “in meetings,” when reporters request interviews.

One wonders whether those meetings are the Scared As Hell Minister’s support group or, perhaps, How to Win Back the Electorate 101.

And the government’s efforts to cloister certain ministers are almost surreal.

Take Education minister John Edzerza.

For two weeks, he’s been chased for interviews on several issues, including the phantom school in Copperbelt — you know, the one that keeps fading in and out of reality depending on which Yukon Party politician you talk to.

But Edzerza is always “unavailable” and “busy.” He has yet to speak directly to reporters.

Last week, moments after cabinet spokesperson Peter Carr told reporters Edzerza was “busy” he was spotted walking to his car.

On Thursday, Edzerza was having surgery, said acting Education minister Elaine Taylor during a phone interview.

“He’s expected back in the house Monday,” she said.

No big deal.

But, it bears noting that Taylor found time to call reporters during her short stint as Edzerza’s stand in.

For weeks, Edzerza didn’t.

The biggest surprise is that even hard-as-nails Fentie appears to be in the grips of the cold sweats.

Opposition leader Todd Hardy, who has newfound confidence and a slight swagger following a recent poll that gives his party a comfortable lead, keeps taking pot shots at his former colleague in the house.

“When are you going to call an election,” he’s asked Fentie almost every day.

For a quick-witted guy with a battery of one-liners, Fentie’s recent responses have been a tad, err, limp.

“Maybe the answer for the member opposite is the Yukon public might not want another general election in case the worst-case scenario happens: an election of an NDP government, which would lead this territory backwards.”

Not exactly a pithy comeback.

On Monday, pressured by Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Lorraine Peter to actively lobby Washington politicians to save ANWR, Fentie didn’t even muster the juice to stand and answer the question.

“I was very personally offended,” said a highly emotional Peter afterwards.

As the Yukon Party tries to ride out its sagging popularity, Fentie clearly wants his ministers kept on-message and away from reporters.

For some, falling popularity signals an opportunity to launch new legislation or legacy projects.

For Fentie, it means battening the hatches and forcing his cabinet to ride out the storm in stoic silence.

Unfortunately, you can’t mask fear.

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