The tale of one record-breaking leader’s decade in office has a sad ending

Feature | by Stephen Whitworth

Photo: Darrol Hofmeister

Would the Saskatchewan Party have formed government without Brad Wall? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee. Remember, it was built from the bombed-out rubble of two other failed political houses: the PC party, destroyed by the incompetence, scandals and crimes of the Grant Devine government, and a cannibalistic Saskatchewan Liberal side that hadn’t been in power since 1971. The Sask. Party has always had the tensions inherent to such a merger, with the province’s natural governing party, the NDP, standing to benefit from any sectarian eruptions. Winning would be a tall order.

What the Saskatchewan Party needed was a strong, electable leader who seemed trustworthy — someone who could convince skeptical voters that this new political entity was neither a collection of bankruptcy-prone bumblers nor a savage, hard-right gang of privatization thugs. They didn’t have one in 2003, when Lorne Calvert’s uninspired but safe-looking NDP pulled a surprise victory out from under the nose of then-Sask. Party leader, the dour Elwin Hermanson.

Talk about Wall as a potential leader started almost immediately after the election. Here was someone with charisma who didn’t come across as an ideological fanatic. Wall seemed more like the mythical “regular person”: friendly, smart without being a stuffed shirt and someone it might be fun to have a beer with.

Wall was acclaimed as party leader in March 2004 and never looked back.

Until now, I guess.

The Old Democratic Party

By 2005 it was obvious to everyone that the NDP government had run out of steam. At the same time, it was blundering into dumb potato scandals. (which somehow got Nixon-level press coverage). That was the Calvert NDP. Even its sins were stultifying.

The Sask. Party under Brad Wall, meanwhile, consistently led in the polls. Wall was the leader both critics and supporters had thought he’d be: credible, charming and very articulate. He was able to clean up his party’s brand, suppressing the unelectable homophobia, racism and right-wing, “business uber alles” zealotry that critics (us included) remained convinced were lurking in its collective psyche. Basically he ran a tight, “eyes on the prize” operation.

I remember a friend — not a Sask. Party voter — telling me about a Wall speech maybe 18 months out from the 2007 election. He said Wall killed it, and the NDP didn’t stand a chance.

He was right. On Nov. 7, 2007 Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party defeated the NDP, taking 38 seats (a majority at the time was 30) and winning just over 50 per cent of the popular vote.

Over the next decade, that would be the Sask Party’s worst showing under its charismatic leader.

Big Brad Boom

The Sask. Party assumed power during the early part of a once-in-a-generation economic boom created by surging resource prices and incubated by solid fiscal management by previous NDP governments. With that wind at his back, Wall was set up for a decade as premier — he could cut his cake and taxes too. Thanks to bulging coffers, he could fund progressive programs like the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability, which got people off welfare rolls while making both him and his government look compassionate.

At the same time, shrinking news rooms meant there were fewer and fewer reporters to aggressively cover the legislature. Wall and company didn’t have to face a truly red-meat eating press corps. Besides, he was the popular new guy and popular new guys often get a bit of a pass. Especially one who was always ready with a perfect sound bite.

Sure, Wall’s government made some early partisan moves, such as cancelling the NDP’s (in-retrospect, extremely important) resource revenue lawsuit against its federal allies, the Conservative Harper government, as well as bringing in legislation to weaken the labour movement. They also shut down the Saskatchewan Cable Network and hired some samurais, sorry, senseis, to tell health care workers how to do their jobs.

But what Wall’s government wisely didn’t do in those early days was launch big, scary initiatives that might awaken fears that they really were the “same old Tories”, as the NDP (too often) called them. That old taunt, along with the super-lame “wolf in sheep’s clothing” jibe, must have haunted Wall and the Sask. Party, especially as they faced an Opposition made up of 20 MLAs.

It wasn’t until their second term that the friendly mask slipped off.

The Mask Slips

With Saskatchewan’s economy running so hot it was practically glowing and tens of thousands of new residents flooding into the province, the NDP had no shot at victory in the 2011 provincial election whatsoever — but why settle for mere defeat when catastrophe is so exciting? To counter the unbeatable, still-charming Brad Wall, the NDP ran a ghost from its own past: Dwain Lingenfelter, a centrist with deep ties to the petroleum industry.

For reasons most of us will never learn, that somehow turned out to be even a worse idea than it sounded.[1] Wall crushed the NDP in a landslide, winning more than 64 per cent of the vote and reducing the Opposition to a pathetic nine seats from 20.

Perhaps that was what emboldened the already feeling-a-little-too-good-about-itself Saskatchewan Party.

In the 2012 Provincial Budget, Brad Wall’s government announced the end of the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit. People will say the Sask Party always hated the film patch’s guts, perceiving it as a nest of NDP-funded stooges who made bad movies about Tommy Douglas and shot Ryan Reynold’s films in NDP politicians’ living rooms. But what was new about this policy was that the tax credit had support beyond urban Saskatchewan. Small towns and businesses across the province benefit from film productions too, and the end of the tax credit meant that would come to an end.

It wasn’t just petty, it was bad politics — a poor policy decision that would look worse and worse over time as the Saskaboom faded and the province suffers for not having a more diversified economy. No wonder the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce condemned it at the time.

There was more of that kind of thing to come. There was the out-of-nowhere 2016 announcement that the government wanted to sell 49 per cent of SaskTel, which made it look first like a bunch of gigantic liars, since Wall had just promised during an election campaign that crowns wouldn’t be sold, and then like goofs who don’t know what they’re doing when they inevitably backtracked (sort of, it’s complicated and sketchy) after the backlash.

There were the savage cuts to SAID, the program the government had championed to soften its image.

There was the destruction of another crown, the bus company STC, a deeply-integrated part of the province’s transportation infrastructure. Its loss has caused chaos from health services to the individual level, and Sask highways are one murdered indigenous hitchhiker away from a national scandal.

Maybe worst of all there are collected scandals, waste and mismanagement and general idiocy: the Global Transportation Hub land transfer[2], an expensive East Regina bypass, LEAN, Smart Meters, the carbon capture boondoggle and a collection of MLAs (McMorris, Eyre et al) that can’t be left unsupervised at microphones or behind the wheel of cars — and then aren’t properly dealt with. The government’s shallow bench looks weaker every day.

There’s more to come, probably. The Saskatchewan Party  government is stuck between cuts and deficits with no rainy day fund to save the day. There’s not going to be an easy way out.

Not a scene any retiring politician wants to leave behind.

Leaving Under A Cloud

A decade is a long time to lead a province, even when your popularity is still unusually high. So as much fun as it would be to say the timing of Wall’s departure resembles that of a rat’s on a sinking ship[3], it almost certainly isn’t the case.

Unless they plan to go for a fourth term, three-time premiers need to resign at least two years away from their party’s next election. You could’ve put money on Wall announcing his resignation in the summer of 2017 the second he was elected to a third term.

What likely makes his departure bittersweet for Wall is that the Saskaboom is over and the government’s debt-addiction and conservative temperament are primed to boil over into a very familiar-looking — one might say Devine-esque — stew of budget cuts, tax hikes and a downward spiralling economy.

Ten years of energy, optimism and talk of a new Saskatchewan, and here we are.

Liberals, Tories, same old story.

  1. I’ve heard the caucus office keeps a “Lingenfelter Jar” that works like a swear jar — when someone says Link’s name, they have to put a dollar in it.
  2. Wall was interviewed by the RCMP the GTH and that’s obviously not good.
  3. It would have been a lot of fun. Oh well.