'Above my pay scale': In a rough week at the Yukon legislature, health minister struggles alone
Pauline Frost has not had an easy week.
The Yukon cabinet minister has been repeatedly under fire from the official opposition, and cracks are beginning to show — raising questions about government solidarity, and the premier’s leadership.
The Yukon Party has a key Liberal minister in its sights, and it’s fired volley after volley at Frost, who’s struggled with a daily barrage of questions.
During last fall’s election, Premier Sandy Silver’s mantra was that “all communities matter,” and he expressed his commitment by naming Frost — who represents the remote community of Old Crow — to the senior portfolio of Health and Social Services.
With two other portfolios — Environment, and the Yukon Housing Corporation — Frost has a sizeable workload.
Health and Social Services is the largest government department, and typically, the minister isn’t burdened with additional responsibilities.
Premier Sandy Silver, though, clearly put a lot of faith in Frost’s abilities — so, is that faith bearing out?
A series of mis-steps
Frost has committed several “faux pas” (literally, “false step” in French) over the past few weeks.
Early in the fall sitting, she was asked about the lack of Wi-Fi in the community hospitals in Dawson City and Watson Lake.
Her response — that when built, the buildings weren’t designed with Wi-Fi — seemed odd, especially while she was sitting in a 1970s legislature building with Wi-Fi that works just fine, thank you.
Frost went on to elaborate that it’s really a matter of cost, but her initial response raised eyebrows.
Then, when asked about the 11 mental health workers for eight rural communities that the Liberals promised in their spring budget, Frost went off on a long ramble about consulting with community partners and needing their advice on the positions.
But the health department the next day contradicted Frost, saying that community consultations were finished, job descriptions written, and that the positions would be posted on the government website by month’s end.
Why didn’t the minister know that?
Similarly, Frost told both the legislature and the media that six housing corporation units soon to be vacated by teachers in Ross River (who are moving into new units the government has built) would be given to the Ross River Dena Council.
A spokesperson for the premier’s office later contradicted Frost, though, saying “a final decision … has not yet been made.”
Frost was equally clumsy with other questions about community care.
Addictions counselling in the communities?
“Attend to Whitehorse,” she advised people, or go to the local First Nation (but what if you’re non-First Nation?).
Forecasting the need for secure medical ward beds in the new Whistle Bend continuing care facility?
“I can’t foresee the future,” she said.
Update on the provincial health minister’s conference in Edmonton last week?
“That’s above my pay scale.”
‘She IS the minister’
The Yukon Party, no doubt sensing a weak link in the Liberal chain, harried Frost all week.
“I guess I need to remind the minister that she IS the minister, and remind this government that they ARE the government,” MLA Patti McLeod noted acerbically.
“They’ve had a year to do whatever it is they were going to do. All we’re asking is, ‘what’s that been?'”
The scrutiny continued outside the legislature, with reporters peppering Frost with similar questions, and receiving similar non-answers.
The lack of answers, or worse, bizarre answers — she responded to a direct question about how much the government has spent on Yukon Housing Corporation units in rural Yukon by referencing a Yukon Party minister’s move in 2014 which sidelined the Housing Action Plan — has become a central theme with the minister.
What is also remarkable is the curious lack of assistance Frost has been getting from the government benches.
Former Premier Darrell Pasloski frequently took the last question when his ministers were under fire.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has displayed the same kind of protectiveness recently with his beleaguered Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Silver has stepped in for Frost once or twice this sitting, but not in the last few weeks. Other ministers — such as Community Services Minister John Streicker, or government House Leader Tracy-Anne McPhee — have been similarly quiet.
Frost is a novice minister, and she’s not the only one. Silver is a novice premier.
Observers (and the opposition) are watching closely to see how the premier meets the challenge. Because when ministers flounder, that’s when the leader steps up.