Friday, May 5, 2017

Long Gone to Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan, we need to talk.

There is a very real problem in this province, regardless of whether or not you want to admit it, but we need to talk about it. To put our fingers in our ears and sing our lungs out isn't going to do anyone any good; instead, we need to admit a pure and simple truth: Saskatchewan, we've been had.

Now, this is not an easy concept for anyone to admit. Humans, by our very nature, are a prideful bunch. It takes a special kind of person to stand back and admit "I made a mistake" or "I trusted someone I shouldn't have." While buyer's remorse is a concept many of us are familiar with, especially those who watch the Home Shopping Channel, when it comes to the things that matter we are slow to admit when mistakes have been made.

Instead, as is often the case, deflection and denial become the order of the day. It's easier to convince ourselves of a happy lie than it is to accept a painful truth. But we, as a province, need to step back and open our eyes.

Irreparable harm is being done to our province. I'm going to say that again: Irreparable harm is being done to our province. Sadly, this is not harm being committed by an external party intent on our harm, but it is harm being done by those we expected to represent us. By those who, quite literally, draped themselves in the colours and symbols of our province and told us that they were here for us.

Despite the analogy being overused to the point of useless cliché; a wolf in sheep's clothing fooled us. They filled the room with platitudes and banner waving; talked about the promise of a "new Saskatchewan", and basically made "Happy Days Are Here Again" the unofficial anthem of their new vision for our province.

To say a word against them was akin to blasphemy. Raise a valid concern? You were DOWN ON SASKATCHEWAN. Ask what happens when the traditional boom-bust cycle of resource revenue returns to the bust side of the pendulum? THAT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! DO YOU WANT TO SEE OUR PROVINCE FAIL?!

The problem, Saskatchewan, is that many of us allowed this behaviour to go unchecked. Instead of persisting, instead of demanding answers and a clear vision, we took the pablum that was offered and swallowed it down with a smile. We bought into the notion that somehow, this time, it was going to be different. That against all odds, what we were being told was true, "Next Year" had finally arrived in Saskatchewan, and we were NEVER going back to before.

Sadly, as we are finding out on a daily basis, we are learning a very stubborn and harsh truth: The cycle of boom-and-bust continues, and despite all the protestations of one blustering Premier, the entire province is now paying the price for an extreme lack of vision. While other jurisdictions used the unprecedented highs of the oil and resource economy to save some of that wealth; Saskatchewan spent like a drunk sailor on shore leave.

In 2009, when the economic downturn really started to peak globally, questions began to be asked about how the government would avoid being hit with this new economic reality. Yet again, instead of any tangible plan or explanation, we were given platitudes and pipe dreams (which is a great band name, by the way).

Yet again, critics were "Down on Saskatchewan" or "Down on the Promise of Saskatchewan", for asking "What happens if the economy goes south for us?"It was a question that should have been given serious thought and reflection; but it is painfully clear that it was never in the forefront of the minds of those who lead our province.

At no point was this more painfully clear than in 2014, when our illustrious Premier commissioned Peter MacKinnon to look at the development of a Saskatchewan Futures Fund. MacKinnon's report called for the immediate establishment of such a fund; Wall's response: "Now is not the time."

In the same time that Wall decided not to save any of Saskatchewan's resource revenue, he did apparently decide that it was indeed the time to:
Saskatchewan, just look at some of the dollar figures quoted and cited in the links above; now consider those priorities at a time when Saskatchewan's economy was riding high. I won't fault the Wall Government for trying new things; sometimes, the new thing works, sometimes it doesn't. As a popular example, we'll cite SpudCo, since the right-of-centre people in the province will never let us forget that one. So, yes, on occasion governments make mistakes and or ideas don't pan out as planned.

The problem, however, is when a government fails to learn from their mistakes. And year after year, we have seen a hubris and ego from the Wall Government that shows that they are not a group who learn from their mistakes.

Instead of owning up to their shortcomings and accepting their lumps, the Wall Government has never seen a scapegoat they haven't found a way to hoist up and condemn.

Complaints about rural health care? The NDP is to blame from when they were in government over a decade ago! Complaints about road infrastructure? The NDP paid less for roads than we have! Economy collapsing? Resource revenue globally...PLUS for good measure, we'll blame the NDP in Alberta!

There's an old phrase, that I'm going to clean up to use on the blog: If you run into a jerk in the morning, you ran into a jerk in the morning. If you run into jerks all day, you're the jerk. Passing the buck only works for so long, if it works at all, and instead what we've seen is a government that is very slow to admit mistakes.

We saw one of those once in a blue moon instances recently with the decision to reverse cuts to library funding. And that was a huge victory for people who got active, wrote letters, showed up to protest events, and held onto issue like a pitbull with a steak bone.

Of course, the storm cloud on the horizon on this issue, is that the funding restored is equal to last year's funding. No increases, no decreases. Which makes the possibility of a decrease in the next budget, but perhaps not one as substantial as the cut proposed this most recent budget, all the more likely.

And then there's the cuts that are still happening.

The loss of STC. Education claw backs, despite an increase to mill rates for education. The cutting of funeral services for homeless individuals in the province. Continued cut after cut to people on programs like SAID in the province; with the announcement today that a $20 travel voucher credit is being replaced by a "mileage" system, requiring out of pocket expenses first. This was a project that cost $240 a year for a single person, with the government saying the change would affect 4,200 people.

That's a grand total of $1,008,000 a year. A literal drop in the bucket, when you consider the size of the provincial deficit.

At the same time, among all these cuts, is a generous cut of 1% to the corporate tax rate in the province.  At the same time, a 1% increase to the PST; while also removing previously exempted items from their exemptions, meaning some items effectively saw a 6% tax increase.

Also among all these cuts: Bill 40, which we've talked about before, and the potential sale of up to 49% of our Crowns to "private partnerships".

Not even a week after Bill 40 passed, it was confirmed that SaskTel Minister Dustin Duncan had talked to a representative from a large telecommunications company...And that SaskTel had done "preliminary" work on what a 49% sale would look like. Never mind that on Wednesday, before Bill 40 passed, Duncan declared in the Legislature that no work had been done. Come Thursday, and the bill being passed, Duncan's tune changed and he said that he had misspoke.

I want to emphasis this, because it's very important: The Minister responsible for SaskTel stood up in the Legislature, the public's House, and unequivocally denied any work being done by SaskTel on a potential sale...Only to correct the record AFTER the bill had been passed. That is DANGEROUSLY close to a Minister misleading the Legislature; which believe it or not, is actually a very serious issue.

Granted, until we know otherwise, we have to take Duncan at his word and that it was an oversight not a malicious attempt to mislead the Legislature. But the timing sure is suspect, and it points to yet another stronger case for the hubris and ego that permeates throughout our provincial government.

Which brings me back to the conversation and the harsh truth we need to admit to ourselves.

Saskatchewan, Brad Wall and his government have not earned the right to treat this province in any manner in which they choose. Now, I can hear some of you saying, "But Scott, we elected them. They won an election."

And while they did indeed win an election, I have to ask: Where in their platform did they include any of this?

Where did they pledge to sell up to 49% of our Crowns and redefine the word "privatize" in order to do it? Where did they pledge to cruel, heartless and short-sighted cuts to some of the most vulnerable among us? Where did they pledge to restructure education in the province? Where did they pledge to raise the PST? Where did they pledge to cut the corporate tax rate by 1%? Where did they pledge to shut down STC? Where did they pledge to kill the grants-in-lieu to municipalities? Where did they pledge to do ANY of things they're doing now?

The fact of the matter is they didn't.

Their campaign platform from 2016 contained very few pledges:
  • Increase funding for children with Autism in the province (Cancelled, by the way, at least for the foreseeable future)
  • Create an"Innovation Patent Box" system in Saskatchewan. (They did do this...Huh, it's almost like they'll always do stuff for companies but not families, the poor, or average citizens...)
  • Rebuild the Rainy-Day Fund...ONCE oil is north of $75 again. (At the time of typing this, WTI Crude was pegged at $44.44 USD; oh, and keep in mind that the 2017 - 2018 Budget numbers pegged WTI at $56.25...So we're only $11.81 shy on that.)
And those were most of the "big ticket" items. There was no talk of cuts, or coming austerity. In fact, the Saskatchewan Party spent a lot of time talking about "Not going back" to how things were under the NDP...And how resources were down, sure, but they were prepared and ready to meet the challenge.

Nevermind the fact that the Wall Government quashed budget numbers being released prior to the election. Nevermind that the NDP, quite accurately, were telling us to prepare for the $100-odd million surplus to be closer to a $1 billion plus deficit by the time the budget was revealed.

And this is a big problem.

In a democratic society, an election is supposed to be a contest of ideas. Politicians provide policy, talk about their plans, and let us know what they're going to do in our name for the next four years. But that didn't happen in 2016. The Saskatchewan Party campaigned with rose-tinted glasses, and told us all to look through them, rather than admit to any possible storm that could cost them the election.

We weren't told about cuts, we were told that our "economic diversification" had made Saskatchewan an island; that we would weather the storm and come through unscathed. That unlike other jurisdictions, -COUGH ALBERTA COUGH COUGH DAMNED NOTELY COUGH-, that we would be fine. That despite our financial outlook looking closer and closer to the darkest days of the Grant Devine years, that Saskatchewan was NEVER going back to before.

The fact of the matter, actually, is that despite all their talk of "Never Going Back", the Saskatchewan Party has managed to do exactly that.

In 1968, W. Ross Thatcher's re-elected Liberal Government launched an unannounced austerity program throughout the province. They raised taxes, cut government programs, and brought in fees on medical procedures. (2017: PST raised, check; government programs cut, check; medical fees: We'll count private MRI and CT expansion as a check here.) Thatcher's cuts took a lot of people, including members of his own caucus and cabinet, by surprise.

It's shockingly scary, actually, how valid this quote from John Russell Kowalchuk NDP MLA from Melville is today:

"They  just  couldn't  have  been  in  on  that  great  secret  Budget,  Mr.  Speaker,  and  of course  I  can  readily  understand  the  terrible  dilemma  they  were  in.  They  were  probably  thinking  as  to how they could face their constituents back home. How could they explain the abrupt change from boom to  bust?  How  could  they  wash  away  the  betrayal  of  their  supporters  who  had  believed  them?  Mr. Speaker,  never  in  the  history  of  Saskatchewan  have  the  people  been  betrayed  as  they  were  by  that Budget  presented  by  the  Provincial  Treasurer  on  that  black  Friday  of  March  1. Mr.  Speaker,  from  the pre-election  days  of  October  11,  from  the  big,  new  shiny  Saskatchewan  to  utter  decay,  ruin  and  grim austerity, is  a  lie  that  the  people  of  Saskatchewan  will  never  forget,  not  even  in  four  years time,  Mr. Speaker."

By 1971, Thatcher and his Liberals were resoundingly tossed from office; showing that, at least in 1971, Kowalchuk's vow that people would not forget was true. It's a warning perhaps Brad Wall and company should take to heart as well.

Saskatchewan, we have a problem, and it's indeed bigger than one Brad Wall. As you can see, we have a bad habit of falling into a very specific cycle in this province.

Here, to make it very simple, I've made a chart:

Seriously, we've been doing this song and dance since 1967; and it's time that we realize that we're stuck in a rut and need to get out of it. Saskatchewan, we have a problem, and it's been going on for decades. But rather than commiserate the past, let's focus on the here and now.

Today's problem is Brad Wall and his government. They had a chance to speak frankly to the people, it's called an election, and explain what they were going to do to our province. They lied by omission. It's like going in for open-heart surgery, and waking up to find that while the surgeon was operating they also decided to amputate one of your arms without consulting you or your spouse in the waiting room. Meanwhile, while you're preparing your malpractice lawsuit, the surgeon is claiming that they spotted a suspect looking growth or such on your arm two months ago and decided they'd fix it when you came in for surgery...It's just, they never told you at any point, despite knowing about it months ago.

We wouldn't tolerate a surgeon who made a decision on based on withheld information, so why would we tolerate it from our government?

I'm going to say this as plainly as I can: Brad Wall and his government have no mandate to be undertaking the cuts and austerity agenda that they are now passing. They had an opportunity to make a case for austerity to the electorate; they chose not to, and we know they made that decision purely based on electoral fortunes. After all, not many governments win elections on austerity agendas.

But we needed to have that conversation. We deserved to know that STC was gone under a re-elected Saskatchewan Party. We deserved to know that the PST would go up by 1%, and that some exemptions would disappear completely. WE, the people of Saskatchewan, are Brad Wall's boss. Him, and his entire government, are accountable to us.

It's not the other way around.

And that's where this gets very tricky. We're years away from an election, and Saskatchewan (like the rest of Canada) has no method of recall legislation. Like it or not, we're stuck with Wall and Co until 2020 at the latest. The problem, of course, is all the damage they can between then and now.

And that's why this blog post is the length that it is: We need to be vocal. We need to be active. We need to be ready to call out attention to EVERY little detail this government does in our name. We need to show everyone, regardless of political stripe, that the actions taken by our Government DO NOT represent our wishes.

We need to demand accountability.

I'll say this: If Brad Wall and his government wish to continue to push Saskatchewan down the path of austerity and cuts; the path of privatization of public services and our Crown Corporations; the path of completely transforming this province from the one we know and love to one whose form I can't imagine...Then you need to get permission from the people you claim to represent.

You need to take this callous, heartless, and deceitful budget from the legislature and turn it into an election platform. You need to let the people in on this decision, and let us decide whether this unannounced direction is where we want to see our province go.

If you truly believe this is the course the province must take, and I think you do, then you need to have enough common decency to let the people have a say. Simply running on platitudes and popularity (another great band name), while concealing what you would undertake just months later in our name lacks all decency and sincerity.

You've been privileged, and it is a privilege, to lead our province for a decade. Privilege comes with responsibility, which you have eschewed for political expediency. If you truly care about our province, if you truly want to "keep Saskatchewan strong", then make your full and open case to the people.

Put quite simply: Brad Wall must dissolve the legislature and ask for a new election. His party is lacking any mandate or credibility to undertake this austerity agenda. Let them face the people and pitch their plan, and let us decide whether this is what we want for our province.

Refuse this with the premonition uttered by Mr. Kowalchuk some 49 years ago:

"...from  the  big,  new  shiny  Saskatchewan  to  utter  decay,  ruin  and  grim austerity, is  a  lie  that  the  people  of  Saskatchewan  will  never  forget,  not  even  in  four  years time, Mr. Speaker."


Anonymous said...

We truly need a middle of the road party (not Liberals) in this province. Wall can do what he likes because people look at him as a better alternative than the NDP.

I am shocked no one is seeing this and seizing an opportunity to start something and get grassroot support well before the next election.

Kim Persson said...

What we have here is not uncommon (unfortunately) in the realm of politics. Personal charm, charisma, smiles and lies beat sound policy debate and discussion virtually every time. We even have a "sunny days and ways" prime minister as an example on a national level and that is even more dangerous. Political apathy (myself included) is much to blame as is the previous government's (NDP) inability or unwillingness to loudly and publicly proclaim truthfully their record and what they have done and are going to do for the people of this province. Regardless of "party", I do hope the best of us humans can rise above their personal agenda and co-operate with each other for the benefit of all of us.