SaskForward wants to help Brad Wall transform Saskatchewan

Province | by Gregory Beatty

After the province’s entire public service was told last week that total salaries and wages needed to freeze, people might have started to wonder about the Saskatchewan government’s “transformational change” agenda.

Or perhaps they noticed something was up on Jan. 4 after Health Minister Jim Reiter announced plans to consolidate the 12 health regions into one province-wide health authority.

With the amalgamation of 18 existing public school boards into one provincial board of education being contemplated, and cuts to the popular NORTEP/NORPAC program, which taught and trained northerners to work as teachers, nurses, social workers and other professionals in their home communities, it’s clear that big changes are brewing.

When Finance Minister Kevin Doherty announced the government’s “transformational change” plans in last June’s budget, he promised “all things” would be on the table. Between that and plummeting government revenues — thanks to falling resource revenues, questionable spending decisions and a stubborn refusal to raise taxes or royalty rates — it seems likely we can expect more bombshells over the coming months.

Question is, does the public get any input?

Budget Crunch

Heading into last April’s election, the Saskatchewan Party played some crafty politics when it refused to release a budget. Bad fiscal news was forecast but the exact size of the deficit and debt was unknown. According to November’s mid-year update, the deficit is projected to be $1 billion with a total public debt of $15.2 billion.

Politics seem to be in play with the government’s reform agenda, too. There hasn’t been a peep about formal public consultations, which you’d think would be a given when something called “transformational change” is proposed.

That’s got some people concerned.

“They didn’t run on it in the election,” says Simon Enoch, head of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Saskatchewan branch. “It wasn’t in their platform and they haven’t been doing consultations of their own.

“The government’s been vague about what they are planning,” adds Enoch. “But from what we’ve seen in the last few weeks, these aren’t piecemeal reforms.

“This is a major restructuring of the way government operates,” he says.

Gathering Input

In August, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, Saskatchewan Construction Association, Saskatchewan Mining Association, Saskatchewan Manufacturing Council and Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan set up #TransformSK to gather input and provide government with recommendations on what sort of transformational change it should implement.

“We certainly applaud the business community for recognizing the lack of public consultations,” says Enoch. “But business and industry have a distinct set of interests that might not reflect all interests in the province.”

To help provide a broader perspective, the CCPA’s Saskatchewan branch has partnered with over 20 civil society organizations under the banner SaskForward to solicit proposals on progressive ideas for transformational change in such areas as health, education, the environment, reconciliation with Indigenous people and social justice.

“It’s not perfect, what we’re doing,” says Enoch. “We’re hampered by lack of resources and can’t do a traveling road show like #TransformSK. But we felt there were segments of society that otherwise wouldn’t be heard unless we did this.”

SaskForward is accepting submissions from interested individuals and groups until Jan. 28. On that date, a summit will be held in Regina where different working groups will draft policy recommendations to send to government.

Enoch expects a wide range of proposals to come forward.

“We’re taking the government seriously, that they do want transformational change, and it’s not just a euphemism for cost-cutting. If that’s true, then we should be thinking about questions like how do we get out of the boom and bust cycle, how do we move forward in a world that’s fast trying to decarbonize.

“Those are the type of larger ideas we want to discuss, and I hope the government is equally interested in those big ideas.”

Austerity Vs. Fairness

If the Saskatchewan Party government isn’t interested, it certainly should be. It’s been in power for nearly 10 years now, enjoying an unprecedented “commodity supercycle” that let it to increase spending from $8.7 billion in 2007-08 to $14.5 billion in 2016.

Now, the cupboard is bare, and the government can legitimately be criticized for its short-sighted focus on resource extraction as THE driver of the provincial economy.

There’s also its sketchy spending in Lean, carbon capture, smart meters, the Regina by-pass, the GTH land scandal, three extra MLAs and other initiatives; not to mention the mean-spirited (and arguably ill-advised) cuts to NORTEP/NORPAC, The Lighthouse shelter in Saskatoon, urban parks and more.

“We’ve always been of the position these are policy choices,” says Enoch. “Austerity is a policy choice. Other governments around the world have decided not to pursue austerity during an economic downturn.

“Certainly, the way the government is framing it, with the debt and deficit, is making it look like an economic necessity. My position is that I don’t think it is. It’s not necessarily SaskForward’s position. But what we’ve seen from the submissions we’ve got so far is that people are concerned the government seems solely focused on cost-cutting.”

Concern also exists that any cuts that are made will fall disproportionately on society’s most vulnerable.

“They were probably the least likely to have gained from the boom in the first place,” says Enoch. “If anything, with rising living costs and the housing crisis and low vacancy rate, they might actually have been harmed by the boom.”

The government is expected to release its first “transformational change” budget in mid-March. In the hope of informing some of the tough decisions Premier Brad Wall and his cabinet will be making, SaskForward will release its recommendations in February.

“We’ve written to the premier and told him about our initiative so he’s welcome to consider our recommendations,” says Enoch. “But without an official consultation process, all we can do is send them to the premier and hope he responds.

“We’ll also release the report to the public and hopefully that will generate momentum too,” he says.

“Ultimately, we’re going to take the government seriously and we hope they take us seriously,” says Enoch. “Otherwise, how do we ensure that the policy choices that are made are fair and it’s not just the most vulnerable or poorest sections of society that have to bear the burden?”

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