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.

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