Question re: Rural infrastructure projects - May 16, 2016

Mr. Silver: Thank you, Madam Speaker. It was great to spend the weekend in the community of Watson Lake attending the annual meeting of the Association of Yukon Communities. It was interesting to hear the Minister of Community Services’ comments about Yukon infrastructure needs and federal funding, mainly because they were completely at odds with what the Premier had been saying.

The minister’s main concern was that the new Liberal government in Ottawa was planning to spend too much money here over the next 10 years and he couldn’t spend that money fast enough. He was also concerned that the Yukon had to come up with 25 percent of the project money — this is, however, exactly what the government asked for and was the subject of a unanimous motion that passed this House just last fall.

Madam Speaker, if there is so much money available, why hasn’t the government actually applied for any of it to build the Dawson runway, the fibre optic line and the new power line to Keno?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. Of course, the member opposite is correct; I did have the opportunity to have a wide-ranging discussion about infrastructure priorities with the Association of Yukon Communities in Watson Lake this weekend. One of the comments I did make was that, as the federal government continues to increase the opportunities for infrastructure funding, it is going to be something that we need to consider going forward — how to pay for that. Obviously, the Yukon government is required to come up with 25 percent. That is not something I lamented; that was something we were celebrating. Nonetheless, what needs to be considered, Madam Speaker, is that we consider how to pay for that upcoming federal infrastructure funding as well. It’s not simply flow-through money; we have to come up with our own funding as well.

So I simply noted that a challenge in the coming five to 10 years will be ensuring the Yukon government can keep up with the infrastructure spending that the federal government is interested in. They have shown no hesitancy about getting into debt and then going into deficit. We are a little more concerned about that and we want to ensure that we manage our money wisely here in the territory.

Now, with regards to the three specific projects the member recited — I’ll pick the second one; the broadband one. That’s a very good question. We will apply for broadband funding as soon as there is somewhere to apply for. The broadband funding that they have indicated they will make available has not come with any sort of criteria or application, so we don’t know where to apply for it yet. I know that the Minister of Economic Development will be, hopefully, engaging with the federal government very soon to find out how to apply for that type of funding. Once we know how to apply for it, we will.

Mr. Silver: Thank you, Madam Speaker. So the minister did say that Ottawa was spending too much money and there are still two projects on that list that haven’t even been applied for yet. They’re supposedly working on that. I get the message, but the minister’s message is also completely at odds with the Premier, who was telling anyone who would listen in Dawson City a couple weeks ago that Ottawa needs to spend more money for infrastructure. The Premier also spent much of the winter saying that, despite record transfers from Ottawa, Ottawa wasn’t spending enough money for the Yukon Party government in general.

I do share the minister’s concerns when he said that the new infrastructure spending would — and I quote: “… test the capacity of our government to manage these projects…” Yukoners have repeatedly seen this government go overbudget on large capital projects, like the new LNG facility for example.

Madam Speaker, when will a formal announcement on a New Building Canada agreement with Canada actually be signed?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I think what the member is asking about is the new infrastructure funding, not the New Building Canada fund. There is no agreement that is necessary to apply to the New Building Canada fund. In fact we have already had one project approved under the New Building Canada fund — that being the Burwash water plant.

With regard to the new infrastructure funding — it requires a memorandum of understanding between our governments. We’re in the process of negotiating that with Canada right now and we hope to sign on in the near future. All provinces and territories are in similar negotiations and not one has been signed with any province or territory yet. We hope to be one of the first and we will certainly expedite those discussions to ensure that we have access to that funding as soon as possible.

That’s what the federal government calls “phase 1” of their federal infrastructure money. It has nothing to do with the New Building Canada fund, so I think the member is just a little bit confused on that.

Mr. Silver: Thank you, Madam Speaker. There is confusion because of comments that have been made by the Minister of Economic Development and also the Minister of Community Services as far as whether projects were funded or were actually asked for funding from Ottawa in the past, so he can appreciate where the confusion comes from. Also, in the statements that we heard in Watson Lake, it sounded like he was concerned that Yukon was contributing 25 percent to the project despite a motion last fall that government had been asking to set it up this way, so yes, there is confusion because of what we are hearing from this government.

At the same time, the government hasn’t even applied for money for some large projects like, for example, the runway in Dawson. The minister admitted that Ottawa is sending us so much money that it makes it difficult for us to keep up with, so let’s focus on that.

From this minister, I would like to know: Will the minister commit to finding the money to make sure that they do work with Ottawa on infrastructure and infrastructure dollars?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I think the only one who is confused here is the Leader of the Third Party. The NDP of course have understood this. They have discussed that. We’ve talked about it. Members of the Association of Yukon Communities understand it now.

What is important is to note that it will be very easy to spend money on infrastructure projects in the coming years, but we need to be cautious about how we do that. This government has always demonstrated a view to being fiscally responsible and ensuring that we don’t get into a net debt position. That is something that the federal government has not taken — they have chosen to go down the road of significant deficits and significant debt. That is their prerogative and that is their decision to make. We certainly don’t lament the fact that we have to pay 25 percent. That has been our position all along — that we should pay 25 percent.

My comments, though, were that we need to invest in infrastructure responsibly. We need to remember that this money has to come from the Yukon territorial government as well. While we are in a strong financial position currently, it is a cautionary note for communities that we don’t believe that we should be going into massive amounts of debt, like the federal government is. My comments in Watson Lake were simply that. Over the next five to 10 years, we’ll have to consider the Yukon government’s fiscal capacity to match ever-growing financial contributions from the federal government as they go further and further into debt.