It was a word Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall used frequently when he announced his decision to retire from provincial politics. Wall will remain in his role until the Saskatchewan Party holds a leadership convention to select his successor, an announcement about which is expected in coming days.
“The decade of growth truly is a strong foundation upon which to build,” said Wall in the pre-recorded video revealing his departure, which was posted to his Facebook page. “I believe, though, that to best ensure continued success in that work, Saskatchewan needs renewal, a fresh perspective in leadership.”
It’s hard to tell whether Wall was simply regurgitating politically palatable platitudes, or telegraphing a deeper message regarding the inferred staleness of his leadership and state of the Saskatchewan Party he leads, which in recent days has been the subject of rampant speculation itemizing caucus infighting, division and discontent.
Wall’s timing makes sense. Whoever fills his shoes, becoming Saskatchewan’s new but unelected premier, is going to have tiny feet. But the provincial election of 2020 will be upon him or her in no time. That new leader will need every minute of their partial term to grow and prove their worth to Saskatchewan voters in order to legitimately earn the job when voters go to the polls. There are those who might wonder what Wall knows that we don’t—or, to put it bluntly, whether or not he’s getting out while the getting is still good. But that’s the point: after 10 years in office, even with his approval ratings plummeting, things are still relatively good for Brad Wall, who clings, incomprehensibly, to the title of Canada’s Most Popular Premier. It’s as good a time to go as any.
The broad consensus amongst national pundits seems to be that history will be kind to Brad Wall, but too many variables are still in play in Saskatchewan to assert that notion with any certainty. It’s true that Wall presided over one of the most economically robust periods in Saskatchewan history, even if he didn’t exactly singlehandedly drive oil prices to record highs. However, as Wall alluded to reporters, he will now have to rely on his caucus to keep his promise to bring Saskatchewan’s ballooning provincial deficit back to balance within the next three years. If that doesn’t happen, Wall’s legacy will be that of the premier who reigned over one of Saskatchewan’s most prosperous eras, but who blew through it and left the province in massive debt. The comparisons to a man whose shadow Wall spent a decade trying to escape—former Saskatchewan Progressive Conservative premier Grant Devine, whose fiscal recklessness remains the stuff of legend in the province—will be inescapable. An ongoing, active RCMP investigation into land deals made by his government continues to dog Wall, while billions of dollars in unrecorded P3 debt piles up as the clock ticks down to ballooning payments that Saskatchewan really can’t afford.
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Those living outside the province may have noticed the relatively new swagger in the Saskatchewanian step that can, at least in part, be attributed to the pride of ownership Wall inspired by example (two Grey Cup wins for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the same 10 years as his premiership hasn’t hurt either). Even if that attitude doesn’t stick after his departure—in fact, especially if it doesn’t—it will become known as the Wall Effect, or some other such cheesy moniker.
Saskatchewan’s population is clearly on Wall’s personal legacy agenda, pointing to its growth almost as many times during his retirement statements as he did to renewal. The number of lives being lived inside Saskatchewan’s four straight walls have indeed flourished to surpass the oft-touted sweet spot of one million under the watch of Wall, who considers that marker a hallmark of prosperity, specifically for the resulting expansion of the tax base.
Wall’s impending departure means that right now the only thing certain in Saskatchewan’s future is uncertainty. The decimated Saskatchewan NDP opposition is in its second year without a permanent leader, though the party’s own contest, slated for May 2018, is slowly heating up as a two-man race between third-time contender Ryan Meili, and veteran MLA and former interim NDP leader Trent Wotherspoon. Years of lacklustre governance and virtually non-existent policy have left the party adrift in an oceanic void of its own making, with Saskatchewan residents still unclear as to whether the right NDP leader can even resurrect its hopes of forming a viable opposition, never mind government.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Sask Party stares down the barrel of its first-ever bona fide leadership race, after the coronation of Brad Wall in 2004. For a party that was originally supposed to encompass both Liberal and Conservative values, Wall has taken it in a decidedly right-wing direction in recent years, from his combative approach to dealing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and disdain for policy placing measures of environmental protection over economic gain, to lending his own personal endorsement to successful federal Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer. The few openly Liberal MLAs and supporters remaining in the Sask Party will undoubtedly make a keen attempt to steer the ship back in their direction, much to the chagrin of the blue-blooded conservative faction that is more than happy to hold course. The Sask Party runs a real risk of a federal Conservative-like hot mess of too many candidates, each trying to one-up each other using shock factors rather than substance.
In the meantime, Wall undoubtedly has some of the most poignant and important months of his career stretching before him, and then his legacy is out of his hands. However, he seems to feel confident that he is placing his faith in the outstretched palms of those more than capable. Above all else, he makes it clear that whatever the outcome for himself, heading for the exit now is, in his mind, the right thing to do for Saskatchewan.
“I think renewal will be good for the province,” he said, riffing on that theme again in a media scrum following his announcement. “I think renewal and a different perspective will be good for the government … (and) for my party as well.”