Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Who's In, Who's Out, and I Don't Know's on Third

SOURCE: CJME News - Speculation Remains Over Who Will Replace Brad Wall
SOURCE: Globe & Mail - Race to Replace Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall Gets First Entrant
SOURCE: CBC News - Who Will Replace Brad Wall as Saskatchewan Party Leader
SOURCE: CBC News - Trent Wotherspoon Announces run for Sask. NDP Leadership

Let's deal with the shorter of the two stories we'll be looking at this evening, starting with Trent Wotherspoon's announcement to run as leader for the Saskatchewan New Democrats. We talked a bit previously about Trent's likely intentions when he announced he was resigning as interim leader, so we won't focus too much on that now, but what I will say is this:

The SK Party is already turning its wheels about Trent's previous mentions not to run and saying that it casts him as untrustworthy. Here's a line I hope NDP Head Office sees, feel free to use it: I'm no less trustworthy than a Premier who asked for another 4 year mandate and is now leaving barely a year into it.

As we talked about in the previous post, situations have changed. The SK Party aren't where they are when they won on election night in 2016; nor is Trent where he was when he took over as interim leader. Re-examinations of things are fine, especially when circumstances shift such as they have between election night and now.

Granted, the SK Party has never been one to abandon attack angles when they latch onto something, so the best response now is to come up with a line (or use the one above) that can be easily thrown out whenever they start to sabre rattle on that point.

Moving along, as previously mentioned again, it seems likely that with Trent and Ryan now declared as the two official candidates that it is unlikely anyone may step forward in the race. With previous leadership campaigns under their belts, both are formidable opponents for anyone who hasn't had such experience.

There's still the possibility that someone else may step forward, but it seems unlikely at the moment that anyone else would want to invest the time and resources into a campaign where they're starting in third and hoping to play catch up as the campaign goes on. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to be proven wrong on this point (the more voices the better), but I think we're likely at the two candidates we'll have moving into the final laps of the contest.

Which brings us to the newest developments out of the Saskatchewan Party.

In a surprising move, Tina Beaudry-Mellor (current Minister of Social Services) is the first person to throw her hat into the ring to replace Brad Wall. I say surprising, because even though her name had been floated in the hours after Wall's resignation, Beaudry-Mellor is a first-term MLA elected in 2016.

It's not often to see a person with little over a year's experience in the Legislature take a run at the top job.

Now, I feel I need to draw some comparisons here; since I can already hear people going, "But Scott, Ryan Meili hasn't even been an MLA for a year yet, and he's running for his party's leadership!"

True, but there's some significant "buts" to that statement. Firstly, Meili has run for the leadership before on two occasions; giving him some experience in running a leadership campaign and all that entails.

The LARGER argument however, is that Meili is running to become Leader of the Opposition. While Beaudry-Mellor, should she win, would step immediately into the Premier's Office. That's a huge difference, and one that kind of makes the comparison between them a false equivalency.

What I can say, however, for Beaudry-Mellor is that she does have a background in political science; having been a professor at the University of Regina on the subject. And while there is an argument to be made that her knowledge in the field through academics can make up for the practical experience gained by working as an MLA, I'd feel remiss if I didn't point out the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge.

A political science professor may have a good understanding of the ins-and-outs of the legislative process and how the "sausage gets made" (as Otto von Bismarck once said), but there's a difference between knowing and doing. How the legislative process occurs in theory and in practice can be objectively different; and experience in the theory may not transfer over to the practical.

Effectively, there will be a learning curve. A few years experience as an MLA helps prepare one for this curve, and I don't think that's experience that can be replaced by a good fundamental knowledge of the theory behind it. It's the same reason why employers are asking a person who just spent 4 years getting a degree on a subject to then have 2 - 5 years of work experience applying that degree; because it won't always happen like how it was in the book.

Perhaps more hindering to Beaudry-Mellor's ambitions, however, is her close ties to the mess that was the 2016 - 2017 Budget. As Minister of Social Services, Beaudry-Mellor is directly tied to some of the decisions that were among the most lambasted: from the initial cuts to funeral services for the homeless to adjustments to the SAID program and other social assistance payouts...And that's not including the most recent move to strike OAS recipients from SAID programs.

Beaudry-Mellor's clip of "I'm a not a heartless person" is going to be played on a loop throughout her leadership run; along with a list of all the cuts that fall under her ministry's purview. If the SK Party's overall objective is to distance itself the Budget and turn the corner on a 'new Saskatchewan Party', Beaudry-Mellor's proximity to some of the most mean-spirited cuts will likely be an anchor in that process.

Let's move along then to the other potentials that have yet to rule on whether they're in or out for the race to replace Brad Wall.

The Most Likely to Run: 
  • Dustin Duncan
  • Jeremy Harrison
  • Gord Wyant
  • Ken Cheveldayoff
The Will They/Won't They:
  • Jim Reiter
  • Corey Tochor
  • Christine Tell
  • Gene Makowsky
  • Alanna Koch
  • Kevin Doherty
The Already Outs:
  • Donna Harpauer
  • Lyle Stewart
  • Don Morgan
Harbinger of the Coming Apocalypse:
  • Brad Trost (This is normally where I'd put Bill Boyd, but given his retirement announcement, it seems Mr. Trost will have to assume that mantle going forward.)
I have to admit, some of the names of these lists are more familiar than others; which makes examining each of them in detail a little difficult. So, instead, let's focus on the ones that I can actually speak the most to.

We'll start with the two "perceived" front-runners: Dustin Duncan and Jeremy Harrison.

Duncan has been floated as a potential successor to Wall for years; starting at least as early as 2010. Like most of Wall's cabinet ministers, he has some baggage going into the race: His tenure as Health Minister leaves a spotty track record and the disaster that was LEAN; and his current tenure as Minister for SaskTel has been undercut by accusations of secret meetings with telecoms lobbyists on the heels of re-defining privatization in the province.

Moving on to Jeremy Harrison, Harrison came to prominence in the legislature as something of an attack dog for the party in the wake of the budget. Harrison served as the chief voice of indignation whenever the NDP refused to rubber-stamp cost cutting measures; quite often misrepresenting the truth (claiming the NDP opposed the 3.5% MLA paycut [they didn't]) among other untruths. Harrison suffered from a "math is hard" moment, covered well by Tammy Roberts, by claiming that Cabinet members were taking a 49% greater pay cut than regular members.

Both men would enter the race with a tremendous amount of baggage, much like the problems faced by Beaudry-Mellor.

On the flip side of this stands Gord Wyant.

For the most part, Wyant has been a pretty competent Justice Minister. He's managed to mostly avoid rocking the boat, or bungling his file; but Wyant's baggage, like perhaps many others in the current cabinet, is unanswered questions from the GTH land deal. Despite an attempt to paint himself as something of a "White Knight" and being the voice of reason that stopped a questionable deal, the inconsistencies in Wyant's account compared to the Provincial Auditor's remain unanswered. With recent troubles for Bill Boyd, stemming from a trip to China, and continued questions about his role in the GTH, it's quite likely that the entire GTH Affair has the potential to kneecap a lot of political careers for those who seek to run again. Wyant could very well be one of them.

That brings us finally to Ken Cheveldayoff.

Cheveldayoff has worn quite a few hats in his tenure while the Saskatchewan Party has been in government; so much so, that it's quite frankly hard to keep track of a lot of the stuff that he's been involved in. Most complaints that I've heard regarding Cheveldayoff stem more from the personal, than the professional: In that he's perceived as a fellow with a bit of an ego, and someone that you will either get along with or dislike, with no middle of the road option. Add to this the perpetual rumours that this prickly personality is what led to Cheveldayoff's time away from the limelight of Cabinet, and it paints some questions as to Cheveldayoff's ability to connect with the average Saskatchewan voter.

One of the general "traits" people admired about Brad Wall, true or not, was the persona he affected of being humble; the "aw shucks" routine, I call it. Wall was credited with being able to work a room and come off as if he was no one special compared to everyone else there. Rumours of Cheveldayoff's temperament would suggest this would be something that would not continue should he become leader, and could very well spell problems for those who like their leader folksy with a side of self-deprecating.

The only two in the "Will they/Won't They" pile I want to make specific reference to are Gene Makowsky and Kevin Doherty.

I've been including Makowsky on my list of potential runners simply due to the Saskatchewan Party's almost cult-like reverence of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I'm sure there's more than a few people who would see the opportunity to see a former team member become the party leader as a tantalizing ideal that would cause every 'green blooded Riders' fan' to fall in line behind them in a general election.

It's a silly notion, but it's one I'm sure someone has put forward somewhere. As such, I think it's worth mentioning.

More seriously, is Kevin Doherty. Given that there's a long tradition of Finance Ministers replacing outgoing party leaders, Doherty seems like a natural choice for one of the front-runners of the race. However, he carries the most baggage regarding the budget.

Doherty's tone-deafness with the mood of the province, plus the flip-flops on some issues due to public and cabinet pressure after the presentation of the budget, undercut Doherty's ability to be an effective leader within cabinet. Furthermore, his inability to admit any actual fault is something that he would wear in any future leadership race.

As mentioned before on the blog, Doherty has most recently taken to blaming "Experts from Toronto" for the price of oil in the most recent budget. Someone should tell Mr. Doherty that when you solicit advice, it's up to you whether or not you listen to it; as such, the final decision and the responsibility is yours. Pointing the finger at some bad advice, which by the way Doherty hasn't said any names OR how much the province paid for him to meet with them or to them for consultancy fees, doesn't pass the blame: It just makes him look petulant and irresponsible.

Finally, the last person I want to talk about (which is a sentence true in a number of ways) is Brad Trost.

Coming off the heady high of finishing fourth in the Federal Conservative Leadership Race, which was well above what most people thought he would do, Trost has recently mused that he is considering running for Wall's position.

While Trost winning the position would likely lead to a massive Saskatchewan Party exodus of voters in 2020, as moderates/centrists/liberals abandon ship en masse, the damage Trost could do in just three short years shouldn't be underplayed.

It seems unlikely that Trost will actually enter the race; after all, there's a steep $13,000 pay cut going from an MP to Premier, which might be just enough to keep him away from the race altogether. But it is indeed possible that he is angling himself to try and play something of a "kingmaker" role; in rallying social conservatives, as he did on the federal level, to support one candidate over another.

Worthy of note, however, would be the perplexing scenario if Trost ran and won the leadership. Convention would state that Trost would immediately be Premier of Saskatchewan, regardless of not holding a seat in the Provincial Legislature. Furthermore, current guidelines both provincially and federally, only prohibit a person from becoming a Member if they are a Member of the Other.

What that means: If Trost won, he could in theory, remain as an MP so long as he didn't officially seek a seat in the provincial legislature. He would have to resign in order to seek a provincial seat, but before doing so he could technically hold both titles.

At issue here is remuneration for the Premier; as the Premier is provided roughly $46,000 on top of their MLA salary. It is unclear whether this payment would be made to a Premier who is not a member of the legislature; and it opens a whole can of worms regarding that whole pay process. As interesting as it would be to get clarification to such issues, or force legislation on them going forward, it wouldn't be worth the cost of having Brad Trost as Premier.

Effectively, as the days go by, I imagine we'll have a clearer picture of who can be added and struck from the list of replace Brad Wall. But what is initially clear as of this moment, is that no one is entering this race without some form of baggage from the Brad Wall years.

And Saskatchewan Party members are going to have to weigh that baggage against the goal of being re-elected in 2020. Right now, as it stands, it seems like no one is offering them the path to that goal; in fact, most of those floated seem likely to keep the party on the downward trend, and are likely running to become Leader of the Ashes once the 2020 results are read out on Election Night. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Regarding Brad Wall

As I drove back from Saskatoon this past weekend, I noticed something. Just outside of the grain terminal near Allan, an old stalwart had disappeared from the side of the road. I speak, of course, about the Saskatchewan Party Billboard that proudly proclaims “Keeping Saskatchewan Strong” and features a smiling Brad Wall in the one corner.

At first, I couldn’t help but notice how odd it was that the billboard was gone; replaced instead by nothing but an empty white spot waiting a new ad. That particular location had always been home to a Saskatchewan Party advertising for at least the last few years; running Donna Harpauer elections ads early in 2016, but otherwise always had Brad’s visage upon it.

My mind mused, jokingly, that perhaps this was a sign of Wall’s impending resignation. Then my mind started to trail a little more, slowly realizing that I hadn’t seen ANY of those billboards anywhere within the past few weeks, if not months. Again, I figured that I was rushing to conclusions and that it was more likely that a “new advertising” style was coming. After all, given the budgetary outlook in Saskatchewan these days, a campaign touting “Saskatchewan Strong” wasn’t entirely accurate.

I thought nothing more about it on the rest of the drive home, and indeed didn’t think about it at all until I heard that Brad Wall was making an announcement at 10:00am this morning. While my mind raced to “Oh, so he is resigning”; I still didn’t fully believe that that would be the case. Perhaps he’s found a buyer for SaskTel and is about to smooth the case over with the population…Or maybe there’s a big announcement with regards to the budget or the “on track by 2019” expectation.

If anything, I’ve learned that perhaps I should learn to trust my instincts a little more after Wall’s official resignation was announced.

Wall’s announcement is not at all surprising; he faces an unprecedented situation in his current tenure as Premier. Wall’s personal popularity is shrinking, still ahead of others but noticeably dipping, while his party’s fortunes are facing the same free-fall in the polls. Indeed, Wall has experienced notable resistance in the face of his recent budget: with protestors out en masse at regular events that didn’t see such things occur in previous years. Like it or not, the budget appears to have awoken many people in Saskatchewan; and that doesn’t seem to be good news for governing party.

One can't help but think of the scenes of protestors outside of MLA offices in response to the now-reversed cuts to library funding within the province; or the other turn-outs that occurred at bus depots and Premier's Dinners. Prior to this budget, this level of anger and discontent from citizens towards the Party of Brad Wall was unheard of. While there were always some grumbling discontents, I know I was one, the majority were happy enough to sit back so long as "such and such" happened and "such and such" didn't.

Speaking of, Saskatchewan’s budget continues to be a thorn in the governing party’s side as the finance minister is now pointing fingers at “experts” in Toronto for being wrong about an oil recovery and casting further doubt on the province’s numbers and the pledge to balance the books by 2019. The government has also continued to flip-flop on various issues brought forward by the budget, and have announced some newer equally harsh cuts; such as last week’s announcement that OAS recipients will be struck from SAID eligibility to the announcement the government is looking to unload some of their low-income rental properties

And so, “Canada’s most popular premier” has found himself in a very unpopular position. As things continue to get worse, and unfortunately it looks like things are heading in that direction, it’s no doubt clear to Wall that all the vows of balance and financial prudence cannot be achieved on his watch. I suppose, in terms of legacy, it’s better to go out as the man who started the fire rather than the one who failed to contain and put it out.

Ultimately, I do not believe that history will look favourably on Brad Wall.

While the recent past allows some rose-coloured glasses for those who wish to look upon him that way; the long memory of history will ultimately underscore what many of us already knew about Brad Wall: He was a flash in the pan, exciting and new for some at first, but ultimately a novelty that achieved little and managed to set the house on fire in its short time.

We've talked before about questionable economic decisions made by the SK Party under Wall's tenure; from billions wasted on CO2 capture to the Regina Bypass to problems at the GTH, so I don't think we need to rehash that. But on all financial levels, Wall's tenure was a disaster by all accounts. The simple fact alone that Saskatchewan managed to save NOTHING, zip, zero, nada with regards to non-renewable resource revenue should highlight that fact.

And 2016 promises about the creation of such a legacy fund when oil tops $55 a barrel again are increasingly laughable as even the finance minister seems willing to concede that such highs are unlikely in the near future...In fact, even industry members suggest that oil is likely to remain around $45 for the near future, if not drop lower.

But let us also remember those boondoggles mentioned above; if only because they need to be mentioned lest anyone think our woes are based solely on resource revenues dropping. Rather, it is indeed a combination of resource revenue decreased income with poor financial management and investment by the government.

Wall's spending projects and decisions are not exempt from how Saskatchewan got to where we are, and it is important to keep that in mind.

Wall leaves office with a budgetary deficit that has tripled since it was first reported, an unlikely to be sufficient timeline for 'returning to balance', and a growing amount of debt thanks to said deficits, increased borrowing, and raiding/back-loading of debt from and onto Crown Corporations. Unfortunately, we may not know just how bad things really are until the SK Party are tossed from office and a new government has a chance to look at the books.

So, if Wall can't rest on his economic laurels (nor should he), what is left of his "legacy"?

Effectively, not much. Wall might have escaped mostly unscathed and able to shrug most of the negatives he now wears had he resigned prior to the 2016 Election; as he would have left at the height of his popularity and not worn a negative budget that has caused increasing pressure and discontent within the province.

For now, Wall's legacy will be viewed in the short term; but with time and knowledge, I do not doubt that he will likely go down as reviled as his mentor in the political encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. It doesn't help, either, that the last days of the Brad Wall premiership were marked by cuts that many saw as overhanded, petty, and vindictive. 

Wall's forward failure for financial planning plunges the province to unsteady ground moving forward. We've already seen two reductions to our Credit Rating, and it seems increasingly likely that Saskatchewan is moving towards the days of being a Have-Not province in the federal equalization system again.

While Wall may receive some credit for stepping down and giving a successor time to build and move forward, he will also rightly take some flak for "cutting and running" before the job was finished. Like it or not, a part of the SK Party's popularity and electability was Brad Wall. Wall saying before the election that the province was in better shape than most thought and that his party could manage if re-elected believed that promise on the basis of a belief in Brad Wall.

Wall's decision to throw in the towel, instead of seeing things through to the end, undercut a lot of his messaging from throughout the years. In the end, Brad Wall has left Saskatchewan in a weaker position than when he found it; and the promise of keeping Saskatchewan strong turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Wall will wear that, in time, doubly so if his successor fails to stem the economic bleeding in the province...and the anger towards the final budget brought in by Wall will only continue if his successor continues a vast array of cuts. And while Wall may be struggling for some grasp at a legacy, given how so much of his reputation has been burned away in this final term, it may quite simply be this: He wasn't the worst Premier we've ever had, but he came close.