Brad Wall, Alberta’s other premier

As Canada’s most popular politician runs for another term, his influence beyond Saskatchewan is growing

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Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (centre) speaks following the family photo op during a First Ministers meeting at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Brad Wall, right, shares a laugh with supporter Ross Huckle, left, during the Saskatchewan Party's election campaign kick-off in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on Tuesday March 8, 2016. (Michael Bell/CP)
Brad Wall, right, shares a laugh with supporter Ross Huckle, left, during the Saskatchewan Party’s election campaign kick-off in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on March 8, 2016. (Michael Bell/CP)

There are four seasons on the Saskatchewan prairie: winter, winter, construction and brown. Brown season has come early this year, and it was pretty much the only colour on display on a mid-March morning, as Brad Wall stood with aides and reporters on the side of Highway 322. Dormant and beige fields in every direction, broken up by a few short trees. Even the cows grazing just in the middle distance had milk-chocolate coats.

The premier was there, a short drive north of Regina, to point out a particularly cracked stretch of road, and promise that if his Saskatchewan Party gets re-elected April 4, its biggest spending pledge will be a “surge” in highway maintenance of $70 million over three years. That’s applying the Iraq-troop-buildup metaphor to a one-fifth increase in the province’s road-fix budget. Sounds unambitious? You bet, and Wall calculates this sort of modest pledge will do the trick to give his party a historic third term.

Barring a collapse for Canada’s longest serving and perennially most popular premier, Wall’s Saskatchewan Party will become the first non-socialist party to win three straight elections since Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation landed in 1944 and went on to become the province’s dominant force. Wall enters this election with a 49-9 seat advantage, polling at a double-digit lead over the latest New Democrat opposition leader.

At a speech the day after he launched the 27-day election campaign, Wall said voters “should expect more of the same”—a phrase normally uttered by the anti-incumbent attack ad, not the incumbent. But people in Saskatchewan seem to be a contented lot with the current “same” that Wall has championed: more jobs and business investment with an oil and natural resource boom (even if the oil crash shows how precarious it can be), a population growth spurt after a long period of exodus, and a charismatic leader with clout and attention on the national stage.

Both through electoral attrition and Wall’s own political gifts, he’s become the most powerful conservative leader in Canada, something which tends to matter in a province seldom used to such superlative terms. With the Alberta and federal Tories out of power, Wall’s muscular boosterism for the oil industry and pipelines, and vocal caution around climate change action, make him stand out as a hero for the right and threatens to make him a whipping post for the nation’s progressives. His province has weaned off equalization and now he criticizes what the “have-nots” get. With another comfortable victory in April, Wall will be one step closer to completing Saskatchewan’s transformation into the new Alberta: with polls and pundits forecasting the NDP to at best pick up a handful more seats but stay firmly in opposition, a one-party state could be rising in the province where New Democrats were the natural governing party, and next door to the province that has finally shed its one-party state status after 44 years.

Now, people don’t chant “40 more years” at party rallies. And there’s an ever-long list of campaign upheavals that have defied conventional wisdom, or shattered prolonged honeymoons. But there are few political enchantments as strong as the 8½ years of canoodling between Saskatchewan and Brad Wall. Angus Reid Institute’s regular premier tracker puts Wall’s approval at 62 per cent. It’s not just that he leads among the country’s premiers, and even has an approval rating one notch above Justin Trudeau’s. No other current premier has retained approval levels beyond 50 after their rookie year, according to the ARI survey. As far back as the firm began tracking, in 2009, Wall has never dipped below 55 per cent.

The Saskatchewan Party formed in 1997 as an NDP-weary coalition of Tories, Liberals and Reformers, when Wall was still an economic development officer in Swift Current. But it became Wall’s unstoppable vehicle when it acclaimed him as leader in 2004 and formed the government three years later. It’s found the centre of Saskatchewan political culture, is happy to wiggle around there as long as it can, and steers clear of provincial third rails, long having realized that trying to unload Saskatchewan’s many Crown corporations is as toxic as bringing in an Alberta sales tax or weakening Quebec language laws. “They’ve recognized the reality of this province,” says Raymond Blake, political historian at the University of Regina. A New Democrat privately grumbled to Maclean’s that perhaps a party shouldn’t be allowed to use the province’s name as its own. Sask Party colours are the province’s official green and yellow, but, more important, that means its green paraphernalia resemble those of the singularly revered provincial brand: football’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The commodity price wave that jolted Alberta and Saskatchewan apace has also sent both economies downward—in the lucrative Bakken oil formation that stretches across the south of the province, rental vacancies in Estevan have leapt to a Fort Mac-ish 20 per cent—though the rectangular province hasn’t been as sharply affected and is forecast to fare better this year, escaping recession before Alberta does. While the two provinces have grown more closely intertwined on many measures, one indicator is substantially different: while Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s approval level in the ARI survey has closely followed the oil benchmark price from the 50s down to the 30s since her election last spring, Wall’s has remained aloft.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speak to media Friday, January 8, 2016 at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg, after meeting to discuss a number of issues of importance to both Alberta and Manitoba. The premiers also signed a memorandum of understanding on shared energy and climate change priorities. (John Woods/CP)
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speak to media Friday, January 8, 2016 at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg, after meeting to discuss a number of issues of importance to both Alberta and Manitoba. (John Woods/CP)

Wall has stoutly rebuffed calls to pursue the federal Conservative leadership, choosing to dart around the province in a Chevy pickup truck this month to extend the fledgling dynasty he built. Emblazoned on the truck is his party’s steady-as-it-goes campaign slogan, “Keep Saskatchewan strong.” It brings a muscle-flexing edge to the province’s mythical prairie modesty.

When Brad Wall left the stage March 9 after speaking to a rural municipalities conference, several councillors gathered to talk with him. A few wanted to wish him good luck or talk policy, but more were keen to talk about his family, kids—his singer-songwriter son, Colter, recently inked a U.S record deal—and his classic Dodge muscle car. Had it been football season, some may have chatted about the NFL picks Wall still makes on sports radio every week. In a speech dotted with pledges of tough national stances, steady policy and a slew of Stuart McLean-like mid-sentence pauses, he appealed to simple, classic Saskatchewan values.

“You are blessed to live in rural Saskatchewan . . . where these values have not changed and they are . . . not subject to change, and may we resolve that . . . that Saskatchewan stay just like that, that no matter the growth, no matter maybe some . . . national leadership that we might aspire to and achieve . . . may we never change . . . these core values,” he said.

It’s widely reported that he drives his pickup truck almost every night more than two hours from the Regina legislature to his family home in the small city of Swift Current. (For those who didn’t yet know, it’s in his party’s ad for the highway promise.) He balances that with a preference to accessorize his suits with pocket squares, as he works a boardroom, delivers a speech or convinces fellow premiers to press against a national carbon-pricing policy. It’s this blend of folksy and savvy that has had post-Harper Conservatives clamouring for the 50-year-old Wall as a potential successor, but he solidly says federal politics is not in his future.

The fact he’s the lone governing leader who’s not Liberal or NDP has given lift to the comments he might have made anyway. When Wall speaks out, Blake, a native of Newfoundland, notices a surge in social media comments from his home province: “ ‘Thank god we have Wall’—and these were comments coming out of Newfoundland!” says the University of Regina historian. “Saskatchewan has always enjoyed that their leaders play on a national stage. I think they’ve come to expect it from their leaders.”

As the Alberta government rushes headlong to establish a broad carbon tax, due to take effect next year, Saskatchewan under Wall fills the ideological territory its once-Conservative neighbour and Stephen Harper had occupied with regard to climate change: go slow, downplay Canada’s global carbon footprint and advocate for investment in carbon capture and storage technology. While he’s opposed to a carbon surcharge while the oil sector is slumping, he did tell Maclean’s he envisions some levy on major industrial emitters that goes toward a technology fund—just as Alberta enacted under the Tories. Saskatchewan, which still has coal-powered generators but has a renewables plan, leads with Alberta on per-capita emissions, and is a bigger emitter in absolute terms than more populous British Columbia.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (centre) speaks following the family photo op during a First Ministers meeting at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall speaks following the family photo op during a First Ministers meeting at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Being Canada’s ranking conservative leader stands to earn Wall a big target on his back, and a signal of that showed early this month on another front. When word emerged that two homeless northern Saskatchewan men were sent on a one-way bus to British Columbia—an ugly, albeit not uncommon, practice in many areas, and not the sort of decision a premier signs off on—Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang was waiting at the homeless men’s destination, with some invective. “If they come here, we’ll take care of them because we’re not Brad Wall,” he told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Meanwhile, the provincial auditor-general is probing a questionable government land deal, and for all Wall’s motoring imagery he has three candidates with past impaired driving convictions. They’re the sorts of controversies that could spell trouble for a governing party fighting for re-election, if the opposition wasn’t starting from so far back. At the rural municipalities conference, NDP Leader Cam Broten took the stage hours after Wall dazzled there, to an emptier room. He got merely polite applause, and scattered claps for copping to mistakes made by past NDP governments, which closed dozens of rural hospitals to address a deficit they’d inherited from the Saskatchewan Tories.

He charges that Wall’s status-quo campaign is inadequate. He echoes old critiques of how the Alberta Tories managed that province’s boom, now that his province’s economy has slid backwards with oil prices and deficits are back. “They spent every penny as fast as they came in, often on misplaced priorities,” Broten says. “They drained the rainy-day fund in the sunniest days the province ever had.”

The rural councillors’ crowd may be one of the least friendly Broten has to face, but the majority of Saskatchewan seats are outside the big cities of Saskatoon and Regina; the NDP only holds two of them and faces a steep uphill battle to capture more. Meanwhile Broten has had to replace four candidates and his campaign manager in the first week as the party’s poor social media vetting was exposed. Plus, two candidates of his also have impaired driving records.

Aware of the daunting task facing the provincial NDP in this election, one labour group has run ads featuring fictional Saskatchewan Party operatives clinking champagne flutes and boasting: “This election’s in the bag.” The message is simple: Wall and his party have arrogantly come to view themselves as the province’s natural governing party and are counting on voter apathy come election day. It’s a pitch tailored to a traditionally hyper-engaged, heavily political province that isn’t used to sleepy campaigns. Wall seems sensitive to the charge, insisting to reporters and his loyalists that “elections are healthy and competitive elections are maybe even healthier.”

Tellingly, the Regina Leader-Post, the government town’s paper, didn’t bother to run a front-page report on the campaign until after its fourth day.

Saskatchewan and Alberta were born as provinces on the same day in 1905, and though their populations began growing in relative tandem, they found different iconoclastic routes away from Central Canada’s Liberal-Conservative axis: Saskatchewan went socialist, and Alberta fell in with “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s conservative Social Credit. A more dramatic divergence came in 1947 when Imperial Oil’s Leduc No. 1 well struck a crude gusher near Edmonton. Alberta’s population surpassed one million a decade later and has since quadrupled, while Saskatchewan only recently got to 1.1 million.

During the last decade’s boom in petroleum and potash (a mineral used in fertilizer found in abundance in Saskatchewan), the long-standing trend of young people moving away to other provinces (mostly Alberta) reversed, while immigration into the province soared. The influx meant that in just one decade, the province went from having the highest proportion of seniors in the country to the second-lowest after Alberta. That’s the sort of point Wall makes regularly. At a campaign office in Saskatoon where he launched his run on March 8, he wielded many such stats: 68,800 new jobs since 2007, the second-highest population growth rate in Canada, and 83,000 more people moving in than out during his premiership.

“There is a confidence that’s new in terms of our place in Canada, especially our economic place in Canada. It’s not a given that people are buying luggage for their kids for graduation presents,” he said later in an interview.

Yet with the commodity price bust, migration trends have reversed, and resource-job losses have pushed the unemployment rate up two points since 2014 to 5.9 per cent, though that’s still Canada’s lowest. The province’s fossil fuels and mining sector have become increasingly central to the economy, making up around 25 per cent of gross domestic product now, up from 15 per cent in the mid-1990s. Saskatchewan’s uranium and potash sectors make it not quite as oil-dependent as Alberta, though potash is slumping, too. Downturn aside—and Wall points hopefully to forecasts saying it won’t last—he’s sought to frame the election around a classic ballot question: Are you better off than you were eight years ago? Most economic indicators are on Wall’s side with that one.

Wall’s NDP predecessor, Lorne Calvert, had started the rebound, with cuts to taxes and natural resource royalty rates. Wall inherited good times, good enough to cut debt, offer further tax relief and various public service increases; he’s never promoted himself as a small-government guy. He talks about the Saskatchewan Advantage, tearing a page from Ralph Klein’s Alberta playbook.

With no Saskatchewan conservative icons for Wall to emulate (though he worked in the scandal-tarred Tory government of Grant Devine) he cites as his hero Peter Lougheed, the late Alberta premier and Tory dynasty patriarch. He sought Lougheed’s counsel several times before and during his premiership, taking to heart the elder statesman’s advice to be proactive in telling the province’s good-news story. Wall has done just that in promoting the success of uranium exports to India and China. (Those close to Wall say he’s more likely to covet a future ambassador posting than a move to 24 Sussex.)

In 2010, when Australian firm BHP Billiton bid to acquire Saskatchewan’s Potash Corp., Wall leaned heavily on advice from both Lougheed and former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow, and even planned for them to form a two-man commission on provincial resource policy before Lougheed had to back out, Wall told Maclean’s.

Terri Harris, a former Wall deputy chief of staff, says he instills provincial pride and a sense that Saskatchewan can perform at the same level as its western sibling. “The oil didn’t stop on the Saskatchewan border. It’s not envy. It’s just a sense of: how come we’re not doing as well as they are there? We’ve got the same natural resources, we’ve got the same hard-working people. What are we doing differently?” she said. “Brad, I think, embodied that very early in his time as leader in our party. By saying: ‘You know what? The difference has been the governments we’ve elected.’ ”

Even if both Wall and Notley promote oil development and pipelines, the business crowd notes the style difference. When Quebec asked for an injunction on the Energy East pipeline to allow more provincial review, Alberta’s new leader said it wasn’t too intrusive, while Wall charged “enough is enough,” to cheers from conservatives on both sides of the provincial border. Saskatchewan Party veteran Ken Cheveldayoff says Alberta oil executives who used to live in Saskatchewan are calling him, urging Wall to be vocal: “People are asking him to be that voice. There’s a void created in that regard.”

Jim Baker, a Regina-based energy veteran who’s worked in both provinces, sees the Alberta Tory spirit in Wall’s Saskatchewan. “It’s like it used to be. Alberta was always free-wheeling,” he says.

Barring a Notleyesque upset, Wall will return to business as usual after April 4, and may even gain an ally to the east if Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives topple the unpopular NDP in a mid-April election. And as conservative movements elsewhere in Canada seek to rebuild, Wall’s business-friendly moderate brand appears a helpful template.

Many right-leaning Albertans can attest to that, and are watching Wall and Saskatchewan with an envy that used to flow the other way.