Saskatchewan's Brad Wall problem - Macleans.ca

Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall problem

For years, Brad Wall has tied a vision of a New Saskatchewan to his stewardship. What will happen now, as his popularity plunges?

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

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

Saskatchewan has spent the last decade filtering itself through two lenses: Old and New.

The Old Saskatchewan has been widely disparaged by politicians and pundits alike as a place and time where dreams and opportunity routinely died, where mediocrity was encouraged—and to cap it all off, when the Saskatchewan Roughriders were a disgrace. It was even disparaged by its current premier, Brad Wall; at a 2010 fundraiser for his Saskatchewan Party, he described the Old Saskatchewan as one that only “managed decline” while constantly “looking for a handouts” from the rest of Canada.

That was in contrast to the New Saskatchewan, a place Wall extolled at the time as one with “plans for growth,” with “its sleeves rolled up.” The New Saskatchewan, which ostensibly dawned in 2007 with Wall’s election, was fresh and exciting. Ripe with promise and flush with revenues from a booming oil sector, the kids were moving back from Calgary in droves. Wall was the most popular premier in Canada. The Riders were even winning.

Suddenly, Saskatchewan was the place to be—not the place to be from.

But today, like all shiny things do eventually, Brad Wall’s New Saskatchewan has lost its lustre. Recent polls have shown record-low levels of support for his government, to the extent that if an election was held today, it would lose a huge chunk of its majority, or even possibly lose power completely. A Mainstreet Research poll from May put the Saskatchewan NDP a whopping 19 points ahead of the Saskatchewan Party in Regina, four points ahead in Saskatoon, and even more surprisingly, tied with Wall’s party in conservative-heavy rural Saskatchewan among decided and leaning voters.

And a new, perhaps more realistic Angus Reid poll released earlier this week puts the NDP 20 points ahead of the Saskatchewan Party in Regina and 11 points ahead in Saskatoon, but trailing in rural areas by 27 points. The Saskatchewan Party crowed about the poll’s results on Twitter—but it’s an odd celebration, given that it trounced the NDP by 32 points in the provincial election just over a year ago.

Contrary to what the Saskatchewan Party and its surrogates are desperately trying to spin, this hemorrhaging of voter support isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to the government’s wildly unpopular 2017-18 austerity budget, which was delivered in March and has been sending aftershocks through the province ever since. No, the reality is the Saskatchewan Party has slowly but steadily been losing support to the NDP for the last twelve months—a trend consistent in polling across gender, age and demographic.

The real problem is simple but undeniable: in a province that has split its political perspective along the dividing line of old and new, there’s now an old Brad Wall and a new one. And the Old Brad Wall used to get us—and the New Brad Wall doesn’t.

It’s hard to pinpoint the first cracks in the fortress of Wall’s popularity, but the fissure split wide open last year. The Saskatchewan Party ran an arrogant, albeit successful, 2016 campaign for their third term fuelled by fear, ominously asking Saskatchewan voters to consider who was best suited to steer the economy through a potential crisis before promptly confirming those fears, and more, by revealing the sickening state of Saskatchewan’s finances after the vote was in.

The real shock set in after the province’s 2017-18 budget was delivered in March. Cuts to libraries (since restored), funerals for those on social assistance, hearing aid programs, education, and public service salaries—coupled with a provincial tax increase—left residents across the province reeling. The dissolution of the Saskatchewan Transport Company bus service has left thousands of residents scrambling to find rides; meanwhile, Uber remains illegal in the province. Stick-handling protests, petitions and plummeting poll numbers appears to be the new normal for a government communications department that has just spent a decade sipping mai-tais under the comfortable umbrella of Canada’s most popular premier.

A scandalous Saskatchewan land deal, which Wall defended vigorously, was an albatross around his neck by the end of 2016. In January, when Wall became the last premier in Canada to receive a political party salary top-up, he dug in, stating he had “no intention to change the practice.” Within a few weeks he was back-pedalling—but humble, contrite Brad Wall was nowhere to be found.

“If there’s any misperception at all about what this means and what it doesn’t mean, it’s just not worth it,” he sniped at Saskatchewan reporters after revealing he would no longer receive the top-up. “I don’t want it to reflect poorly on the government or the party.” In other words: the problem is everybody else and their pesky misperceptions, not him padding his bank account with donor money.

Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall speaks to supporters at a Saskatchewan Party rally in Regina on Friday April 1, 2016. (Michael Bell/CP)

Happier times: Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall speaks to supporters at a rally in Regina on Friday April 1, 2016. (Michael Bell/CP)

The list continues to grow: the government made an ill-advised pitch to oil companies in which he held shares; it liquidated Saskatchewan Crown corporations, even piecemeal, despite Wall’s admission that he knows Saskatchewan residents don’t want to sell them—perhaps because they suspect any sale is fuelled by the provincial government’s need for quick cash, not any kind of business savvy; Wall has demanded salary cuts in the public sector while doling out thousands of dollars in bonuses to his own caucus.

And this is a problem for the Saskatchewan Party. As Old Brad Wall’s fortunes and popularity soared, so did his party’s. For ten years, his image and voice has been splashed across every Saskatchewan Party commercial, billboard and pamphlet, as well as those of the government itself. It turns out that this might be a shortsighted strategy, because with his popularity reaching dizzying heights, Brad Wall’s inevitable descent—party in tow—wasn’t just a risk, it was a guarantee. And without Brad Wall, the Saskatchewan Party brand is a non-entity.

So how does Saskatchewan, tied so closely to Brad Wall and his brand, move on to define itself without him?

“It is clear that Saskatchewan’s economic strategy over the past 60 years has failed to improve the integrity of our economy, grow our population, attract investment or adequately capture and commercialize intellectual capital and innovation,” wrote Wall in his 2004 policy paper The Promise of Saskatchewan: A New Vision For Saskatchewan’s Economy, released a mere six months into his leadership of the Saskatchewan Party.

Decades of Old Saskatchewan history, identity—and implicitly, its values—written off as a failure to thrive.

“Sunsets, living skies, friendly people and golf courses are great,” he conceded at the conclusion of his paper, before going on to point out that “investment decisions are driven by financial factors, not quality-of-life considerations.”

MORE: Saskatchewan’s finance minister responds to this column

Since the very beginning—though it may have not been as obvious then—Wall tried to shape the future of the province by discrediting its past, and then positioning his party, with himself at the helm, as its saviour. Whenever he does make his exit, Wall will be leaving behind a province and a party in the midst of an existential crisis, thanks—at least in part—to his lack of foresight in creating a path forward for either once he’s gone.

Wall likely has enough goodwill stored up that, if he can find his own values again—at least the ones that Saskatchewan residents used to identify with—he could still exit Saskatchewan politics with his legacy intact. That legacy was never going to be what he did for the province’s economy; it was going to be what he did for Saskatchewan’s spirit and identity. Sadly, today all three face an uncertain future.

Tammy Robert is a Saskatchewan-based political strategist, writer and media relations consultant.