Yukon Liberals reduced to minority government despite successful vaccination campaign

Yukon voters delivered a message to the Yukon Liberal Party last night: pandemic crisis management alone is not quite enough to take the territory into the future. In a see-saw election night that at various points had the Liberals risking a third-place finish, Premier Sandy Silver and his party managed a narrow minority win despite losing the popular vote. Silver is now the fifth Canadian premier to call an election since the pandemic began, but the first not to be a awarded a majority government.

Silver called the election on March 12, with eight months still left in his five-year term. Hoping to capitalize on the success and optimism of the territory’s accelerated vaccine rollout, which has already seen two-thirds of the territory vaccinated, the party campaigned on a message of continuity. The Liberal platform (Let’s Keep Going) predominantly focused on achievements to date, while promising to invest in a record amount of infrastructure funding and “free” childcare.

Opposition Focuses on Big Picture

The opposition Yukon Party and NDP, in contrast, focused on their visions for the Yukon. Yukon Party Leader, Currie Dixon, who returns to the Legislative Assembly after not seeking re-election in 2016, focused on the need for the government to take greater action. His platform was supported by a 100-Day plan and committed to improving support for small business, new homeowners, and parents.

The NDP campaign, led by its new leader, Kate White, focused on housing affordability, the environment, and inclusive social programs. However, the campaign suffered several unforced errors. A candidate in a key battleground was forced to drop out after a history of offensive social media posts were revealed and White, too, received criticism for deriding the Liberal government as “men in suits” who have “had their turn.”

Ultimately, Whitehorse (home to 11 of 19 territorial seats) sided more with the vision of the opposition parties, than with the government. Both the Yukon Party and the NDP received more votes than the Liberals in the City of Whitehorse.

Silver Linings for the Liberals

Still, there is a “silver” lining to last night’s win for the territorial Liberals. It marks the first time ever that the party has finished first in back-to-back elections. Silver is also now one of just three Yukon premiers to win back-to-back mandates. The party also held on to the rural seat of Mayo—Tatchun, home to outgoing MLA Don Hutton, whose high-profile defection from caucus and endorsement of the NDP on the eve of the election was seen as particularly frustrating. Finally, except for the Health and Social Services Minister, who tied in her remote Vuntut Gwitchin riding (recount pending), all incumbent cabinet ministers were returned. Without question, victory for the Liberals came down to stronger campaign infrastructure in their incumbent seats.

What this election means for Yukoners is not immediately clear. Silver is waiting for the recount in Vuntut Gwitchin before forming his next cabinet, but the ideological divide between the Liberals and NDP is likely too great to support a sustainable supply and confidence motion as was seen recently in British Columbia between the NDP and the Greens. A coalition government is also off the table. Further, both opposition parties will be emboldened after voters clearly rebuked the Liberal desire for the status quo. The Liberal approach to governing style, communications, and public policy could benefit from a rethink in how they conduct themselves if they hope to hold on to power.

Federal Implications

For the federal Liberals, election night should serve as a wake-up call in the riding. Incumbent Liberal MP Larry Bagnell narrowly won the seat in one of the smallest nationwide margins of the 2019 election. Though Bagnell outperformed the territorial Liberals in terms of the popular vote, the question for the federal Liberals is how to hold on to this battleground seat. Though campaign infrastructure, rather than policy, likely played a key role in the outcome of this election, there are lessons to be learned by the federal Liberals about whether strong crisis management – and a vaccinated population – is enough to carry the party through to a coveted majority government.