In Saskatchewan, a spat over licence plates becomes a political game

Opinion: Brad Wall's ban of Alberta vehicles on Saskatchewan's construction sites is a distraction—with businesses caught in the middle

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall gets settled in for the Meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In April 2017, in an impassioned speech to Washington lawmakers, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall warned that when it came to navigating trade agreements, all “cavalier and reckless protectionist-infused rhetoric” must be avoided.

But one wonders now what advice that Brad Wall would give to the Brad Wall of December 2017, the latter of whom has blown up the simmering feud with his next-door neighbour to the west by lobbing a new protectionist-infused policy, wrapped in a whole bunch of rhetoric, banning vehicles with Alberta licence plates from most Saskatchewan highways’ roadwork and construction projects.

“Saskatchewan contractors tell us that vehicles with Saskatchewan plates are not welcome on Government of Alberta job sites,” said David Marit, Saskatchewan’s minister for highways and infrastructure who is also responsible for the SaskBuilds project, in a Dec. 6 news release. “Saskatchewan operators feel forced to register their vehicles in Alberta if they want to do business there. Today’s announcement just levels the playing field.”

The release went on to warn that Saskatchewan government staff “will enforce the contract provision through job site monitoring”, but doesn’t detail what will actually happen should the licence plate police stumble upon an Alberta offender. And since proclaiming their new rule, the Saskatchewan government has not provided a lick of evidence to support their claim of mistreatment on Alberta job sites. In fact, their rationale for their announcement has now changed a number of times. In an op-ed written for Postmedia, Wall said that the Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association (SHCA) told his government that “Saskatchewan contractors have been shut out of bidding on Alberta government projects.” The SHCA did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting evidence for this article to support their claim.

But while Wall and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley have gleefully grasped yet another opportunity to take cheap, even immature political shots at each other in the public arena, Saskatchewan business leaders and business group advocates are caught in the middle, scratching their heads at this latest blast of rhetoric. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Saskatchewan economics understands that its small businesses and corporations need Alberta—its consumers, its contracts and yes, even its government—to survive. And indeed, within days of Wall’s first shot fired at Alberta licence plates, at least one Saskatchewan organization felt the blowback: one of their product catalogs was returned by an Alberta distributor with the words “You don’t want our licence plates, we don’t want your products” scrawled across the front in capital letters. That organization refused to comment for this article, as did a number of business leaders and business owners impacted by Wall’s decision, out of concerns about alienating the government or their businesses’ Albertan counterparts and clients. But for the province’s businesspeople, Wall’s fight with a province that Saskatchewan needs far more than the other way around seems inexplicable: counterintuitive at best, and downright economically and politically dangerous at worst.

Sometimes, though, Occam’s razor rules. And the most obvious explanation is the most likely: this licence-plate scrap is a naked act of political gamesmanship.

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Wall’s massive Saskatchewan Party government has struggled to demonize its decimated provincial NDP Opposition—their attacks play too much like bullying instead of politics—and there’s nothing this province loves more than an underdog. So its easiest and most obvious target has been Notley’s Alberta NDP, and that has played not just to the Saskatchewan Party base, but to the fear of Alberta’s economic woes—whether or not the province is in Notley’s control—and those fears nominally crossing the border should a NDP government ever return to power in Saskatchewan.

Wall does have legitimate grievances with Notley. Her recent musings about designating 20 per cent of all Alberta government contracts as off-limits to non-Alberta based companies have raised hackles, as has the ongoing dispute over the constitutionality of her government’s tax system on small breweries, which a recent trade panel ruling—now undergoing appeal—said is in violation of Canada`s Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT).

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks about her Fort McMurray wildfire experience during an interview in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday May 30, 2016. (Jason Franson/CP)

But for Wall, the rhetoric is a specific distraction from one of his government’s most prominent failures, as revealed by the fact that the Saskatchewan government’s news release made specific reference to Marit’s role with SaskBuilds—a Treasury Board Crown corporation established in late 2012 tasked with the responsibility for leading a review, dubbed Priority Saskatchewan, of procurement options. In March 2015, after two years of consultation with Saskatchewan stakeholders, Priority Saskatchewan released an “action plan” that would “ensure there is an open, fair and transparent bidding environment for Saskatchewan businesses, and that taxpayers receive best value” across all government ministries and Crown corporations, according to the government news release at the time.

Priority Saskatchewan was supposed to be a protectionist solution—minus the protectionism, of course—to a mounting political problem that was facing the Sask Party: the perception of a proliferation of government contracts being awarded to out-of-province companies. The problem came to a head in 2014 when the Saskatchewan NDP Opposition, recognizing the growing dissatisfaction in a construction industry that fought its Alberta counterparts tooth and nail for Saskatchewan government contracts during boom times, tabled a private members bill called The Fairness for Saskatchewan Businesses in Government Procurement Act, which purportedly aimed at ensuring just that. The bill was axed, but the Saskatchewan Party co-opted its spirit with Priority Saskatchewan’s 13-bullet-point action plan released the following spring.

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It’s not clear, however, if anything has changed for Saskatchewan suppliers and tradespeople, nor if Priority Saskatchewan is living up to its mandate in a timely manner. In March, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce sent its members a memo defending Priority Saskatchewan’s timeline as it continues to roll out its procurement strategy across the province’s monolithic web of Crown corporations, government services and ministries. “While changes to the culture of a profession take time, the Priority Saskatchewan agenda has taken important steps forward,” reads the memo, “the transition … takes a longer-term, more strategic mindset that will take time to set in.”

Waiting for the government to move on its promise on local procurement must be frustrating for Saskatchewan tradespeople and business owners driving by the controversial $1.2-billion Regina bypass, a massive P3 construction and maintenance contract that the Saskatchewan government awarded to an international corporate consortium based in France. Bypass construction, now moving into its third year, will be exempt from Wall’s new decree, meaning the biggest highway job site in Saskatchewan will remain laden with Alberta gravel trucks and other heavy equipment sporting that distinctive wild rose licence plate. If anything, the bypass exemption is further proof that this is merely a political ploy.

Wall also desperately needs a distraction for other, broader issues. Embroiled in a land scandal involving a RCMP investigation into the Saskatchewan government’s beleaguered Global Transportation Hub, and an increasingly dirty Saskatchewan Party leadership race that is spiralling out of the grip of party brass, Wall’s licence-plate grenade could simply be the equivalent of shouting “Squirrel!” to both media and residents alike.

But it does qualify as a decent distraction, and it’s one that Wall can safely gamble on as a way to reinforce his legacy as a champion of Saskatchewan’s interests—and one he won’t have see through to resolution as he gets set to say goodbye to provincial politics in a few short weeks. It would be impossible for Wall not to have known beforehand that this ban was very likely illegal under the New West Partnership Trade Agreement; Alberta’s Minister of Economic Development Deron Bilous—no stranger to bombastic rhetoric himself—has already reported this spat to the organization’s secretariat. The matter will go to an arbitration panel that will render a binding decision, and Saskatchewan faces a maximum $5-million fine if it is found to have violated the agreement. But Wall will be long gone by the time the panel releases its decision.

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Perhaps it should not have to come to this. But Saskatchewan business leaders—the ones perhaps most affected by this war of words—certainly hope it does not.

“Trade between our provinces has always happened and will always happen,” said Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, in an interview with Maclean’s. “Whether it’s beer, highway construction services or manufactured products, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba have been good neighbours and great partners.

“We need to sit down at a table more often and discuss issues of importance and iron them out at that table and not use the media,” he continued. “Prairie people are more alike than we are different, so we can, and in fact must, ensure each other’s success.”