A recap of our premier’s statements on SaskTel privatization
Province | by Evan Radford
Let it go: Brad Wall doesn’t have a hidden agenda to privatize SaskTel and sell it off when a good offer comes along — at least according to several remarks he’s made about privatizing the telecom over the past six years.
If there IS a privatization agenda, then it’s hidden in plain sight.
Based on comments since 2010, Saskatchewan’s premier tends to emphasize two things: keeping his party’s 2007 election campaign promise to not privatize Crowns; and ensuring the Saskatchewan electorate has the final say (via referendum) on privatizing SaskTel.
However, Wall’s and the government’s actions do reveal a consistent pattern: a piecemeal-type policy that gradually sells or privatizes Crowns or public services.
For example, the government and its Crowns have sold 17 different publicly held investments, shares or stakes since 2008. It’s also outsourced public goods or services to the private sector 23 different times.
On top of that, it’s supported four big P3 (public-private partnership) projects. That includes the one time a provincial Crown has been sold to the private sector — 60 per cent of Information Services Corporation in 2012. Unlike SaskTel, SaskPower and SGI, ISC was not covered by the Crown Corporations Public Ownership Act, tabled by the NDP and supported by the Saskatchewan Party in 2003.
Still, for the sake of longevity — and perhaps trajectory — it’s worthwhile to look at what Wall has said on the public record about privatizing Canada’s lone provincially-owned telecom.
On The Record
The first statement comes from a one-on-one interview with Gordon Pitts in the Globe and Mail in May 2010.
Pitts asks Wall why he resists privatizing Crowns; Wall references the 2003 gaffe by then-party leader Elwin Hermanson. Here’s what he said.
“It’s a practical lesson from the election of 2003 [which his party narrowly lost] when we sacrificed the chance to implement the rest of this growth agenda. I was the Crown corporation critic and I helped write the policy, so mea culpa. We sacrificed the chance to make some long-term changes in the psyche and environment in the province for this one issue.
“Some on the right say SaskTel doesn’t have a future as a standalone indie. Well, it just had its biggest year. Part of it is a growing economy and part of it is an attachment people have to their Crowns. In the case of SaskTel, it is competing with other telcos, and this [attachment] has stood them in good stead. I’m not saying Saskatchewan is an island with respect to government-owned enterprise, but there are unique elements that say to me: ‘We still have other things to do, we made a commitment and we plan to keep it’”.
Seven months later, Leader-Post reporter Angela Hall did a year-end interview with Wall. She asks him about accusations of a hidden privatization agenda.
“The fact is we have put significant investment into the Crown sector. We put significant general revenue dollars into SaskTel over the three years to help them expand connectivity in the province, to help them expand the mobility network,” Wall said.
There’s little else that comes from Wall on SaskTel and privatization until the 2016 election cycle, which started March 8.
The Tune Changes
On March 15, then-NDP leader Cam Broten raises the prospect of Wall’s hidden privatization agenda for the the province’s Crowns, as reported by the CBC.
When pressed on the issue, Wall said: “There’s something we signed on to called the Crown Corporation Protection Act, or to that effect. Basically, it protects Crowns from being privatized,” he said. “If elected, we will make one change to that: that’s to the liquor retailing in the province. And we’ve already announced that.”
“With respect to the major Crowns, we will not be changing it if we’re re-elected again,” he said.
The discourse shifted on May 17.
Before entering the Legislature for his government’s throne speech, Wall told reporters that “competition has gotten tough,” for SaskTel, due to a May 2 deal that saw Bell Canada buy Manitoba Telecom Services, according to Leader-Post reporter David Fraser.
“Maybe that’s a discussion Saskatchewan people want to have,” Wall said. “We wouldn’t be able to be in a position of welcoming private investment into SaskTel even if that was thought to be the right thing, because we didn’t campaign on it.
“If it was something Saskatchewan people, we thought, really wanted to at least talk about, there is the idea of a provincial referendum,” said Wall.
Jim Reiter, the minister then responsible for SaskTel, called for a risk assessment on May 4 to gauge SaskTel’s vulnerability in light of the MTS sale.
Of the assessment, Wall said, “It’s worth asking the question, and we ought not to ask it secretly; we ought to have a public discussion.”
On June 20, when SaskTel released the risk assessment, Wall said any plan to sell the telecom will involve everyone in the province. Again, from Fraser:
“If there’s going to be any privatization of SaskTel, the shareholders should have a say,” Wall said, noting such a matter could only be decided in an election campaign or a provincial referendum.
On Aug. 23, the day of his cabinet shuffle, Wall assigned Dustin Duncan the SaskTel portfolio; he also teased the idea of a bid for SaskTel.
“We may get an offer,” Wall said, according to Fraser. “If we get an offer and we think it’s one that generates a significant amount of money for the province, maybe enough to eliminate our operating debt, if it takes care of the jobs question in Regina, if it provides the opportunity for better coverage, we’re at least going to take it to the people.”
Following up those comments, Wall posted the following statement on his Facebook page on Aug. 26:
“Regarding any potential sale of SaskTel, there first has to be an offer, and one of significance — there is none currently.
“Second, as I’ve said, only a very significant offer that would include things like protecting jobs in Saskatchewan, keeping rates low, improving rural coverage and allowing us to do something lasting, like eliminating debt should receive any further consideration.
“By eliminating the debt, Saskatchewan would save roughly twice the amount in interest payments each year as what SaskTel currently averages in an annual dividend to government/shareholders.
“Were SaskTel to receive such an offer we do not have a mandate to accept it…to sell. That is not what we campaigned on. But neither would we have the right to say no without checking with the shareholders of SaskTel — the people of Saskatchewan.
“That’s why I have said that a province wide referendum would be the only way to deal with such an offer. The people would have to decide not the government. That is consistent with election commitments we have made.
“SaskTel’s future became a focus with the proposed sale of MTS to Bell, as the sale would make SaskTel the only regional telecom left in Canada.
“The government commissioned a third-party report on SaskTel’s competitiveness, which found ‘there is a risk that SaskTel’s net income will be unable to support the level of dividends that have been returned to the province in recent years.’”
“It is simply difficult for a small regional telecom to keep up with the necessary infrastructure investments and pressures from large carriers in a highly competitive market.
“SaskTel is a well-run company, a good employer and part of our history as a province. For now, there is no offer and nothing would take place without your say,” Wall said.
So that’s what Brad Wall has said about privatizing SaskTel.
The question now is what he’ll say next — and when.