Maintaining the status Moe

Political commentator Tammy Robert explains why Canada should expect more of the same from Saskatchewan’s new premier. 

By Tammy Robert. 

The late-January morning of the Saskatchewan Party’s leadership convention dawned in Saskatoon under a blanket of fresh snowfall. An Alberta clipper — a parting gift from Saskatchewan’s estranged neighbour — had dumped more than six inches of snow on the region overnight. Treacherous conditions, that would effectively shut down other parts of Canada, equaled just another winter day in the province, and were no match for the Saskatchewan Party’s rural base, which showed up in droves to say one last goodbye to Brad Wall and hello to their new leader.

Finally, after a campaign that felt like a marathon ran at a sprint’s pace, Rosthern-Shellbrook MLA Scott Moe emerged as the victor, earning the title of the first post-Brad Wall leader of the party and the keys to the office of the Saskatchewan premier.

It wasn’t a decisive mandate. Moe received only 26 per cent of first-choice support, not reaching the 50-per-cent-plus-one majority required to win until the fifth ballot, which saw him finally take the win over longtime civil servant Alanna Koch, 54 to 46 per cent.

Saskatchewan businesses can now begin looking to the future with Premier Moe leading the way, and how that might be shaped by his ideology, motivations, and cabinet selections.

On the environment and the federal government’s proposed carbon tax, Moe remains consistent with the same position he held when he walked out of a 2016 climate talks meeting of Canadian environment ministers with federal minister Catherine McKenna. At that time, Moe told reporters, “Many westerners will see [a carbon tax] as ‘National Energy Program 2.0.’ It’s not a good day for federal-provincial relations.”

He echoed those sentiments in his leadership victory speech, when — on the topic of preventing a carbon tax in Saskatchewan — he warned, “Justin Trudeau, if you are wondering how far I will go, just watch me.”

Perhaps Moe might be better served by the sentiments he shared in a March 2015 Saskatchewan Legislative committee meeting: “I suppose with any initiative, not specifically this one, that was not able to move forward, the very first thing I think we would all do as responsible elected people is to sit down with precisely those stakeholders and discuss with them what the next moves would be.”

Born and raised on a grain farm in rural Saskatchewan, Moe — along with his wife and two children — still live in his hometown of Shellbrook. He has an agriculture degree; and, throughout his campaign, his team placed heavy emphasis on his farming background, using country western music and farm imagery liberally, and kicking off his campaign in front of a combine. The majority of the SaskParty’s country-living and agriculture-based voters will very likely be satisfied, if not pleased, with Moe’s win.

Moe, however, might not fare so well in Saskatchewan cities — specifically Saskatoon and Regina, which are largely considered, thanks in part to recent poll numbers, at-risk for the SaskParty.

On the Saskatchewan economy, Moe has been passionate about the notion that population growth and exports are key to its strength. This is refreshing departure from the normal reliance on resource mining, but not exactly a new concept. The Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership (STEP) was created two-plus decades ago by the Province to promote — well — trade and export, and has done an incredible job by virtually any measure. Moe acknowledged this himself in his response to the 2017 Throne Speech last October.

“Mr. Speaker, [exports are] our source wealth in our province, and are why it is important for us to engage to attempt to grow that even further to $35 billion, to $40 [billion] to $45 billion, in the years ahead,” said Moe. “Through value-added agriculture, through opportunities that we have to export our energy products, through opportunities that we have to support our sustainable mining products here from the Province of Saskatchewan, Mr. Speaker, that then, in turn, creates careers in our communities across this great Province of Saskatchewan — the opportunity to attract people from across Canada, from across North America, from around the world.”

Those are rather grand statements. Undoubtedly, Saskatchewan’s business community and beyond will be watching keenly as Moe rolls out his plan to deliver on them.

“I always say if a farmer just outside Saskatoon can build a dispenser for saran wrap, which was a particular trouble for me over the years, we can build anything in this province,” Moe continued in his Throne Speech reply that day. Perhaps that statement best captures his worldview of Saskatchewan’s potential, or at least demonstrates a kind of the same folksy humility that people in this province loved about Brad Wall. That said, the contrast in presentation between Moe and Wall has been stark from the outset. But, we knew that, as just one of many challenges, overcoming the comparisons to Wall meant any new premier would have an uphill battle to fight.

On that frigid January night, after the results were in and the program wound down, it didn’t take long for the cavernous convention hall to clear out, despite the fact a post-leadership convention ‘celebratory reception’ was advertised as part of the evening’s itinerary. Those that straggled behind huddled in small groups, uniformly wearing Alanna Koch scarves or Ken Cheveldayoff stickers, heads down and whispering furiously. For the SaskParty to survive this leadership change, the three-plus-quarters of the organization’s membership that did not put Moe down as their first choice, or — in some cases — even their second, third, or fourth, must be motivated to embrace him anyway. This does not just mean Moe’s caucus — half of which supported his candidacy — or his cabinet. It must trickle down through constituency associations to the potential voter in the next general election.

Moe’s caucus support of his leadership is good news, to a point, as it resulted in ensuring some continuity in cabinet and in government in general — with the exception of executive council, which has been stripped back and rebuilt almost solely with Moe loyalists. Installing Shannon Andrews as his chief of staff, who, over the last decade, has worked her way up from Brad Wall’s itinerary coordinator, is a refreshing infusion of both gender diversity and youth into that role.

The majority of cabinet — 10 ministers — kept their portfolios, while another seven were shuffled to accommodate the reappointment, as is customary, of Moe’s leadership rivals Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Ken Cheveldayoff, and Gord Wyant. The shuffle-out of Moosomin MLA Steven Bonk was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. Replacing Bonk at the cabinet table is relatively unknown Melville-Saltcoats MLA Warren Kaeding, who takes on the ministerial role responsible for government relations and First Nations, Métis, northern affairs.

The now Moe-led SaskParty has barely recovered from last year’s disastrous budget, which outraged nearly every business sector and residential demographic in the province, forcing the government to walk back on nearly all of it — at a still-unknown cost added to an already revenue-deficient plan. Moe has made some further popular-but-costly promises, namely reinstating the provincial sales tax exemption on crop, life, and health insurance, as well as a $30 million cash infusion into schools to rehire the teaching assistants whose jobs have fallen like dominos in recent years. Yet, Moe also remains committed to Brad Wall’s original promise of the provincial budget’s revenue and expenses returning to balance by 2019, claiming he can accomplish all of this simply through a five per cent workforce reduction in the executive government and Crown corporations through retirement and attrition.

You know when something sounds too good to be true…? Well, let’s leave it at that.

We knew from the moment he announced his departure that Brad Wall’s popular shoes would be nearly impossible to fill, and that Saskatchewan’s new premier will have an uphill battle to fight. Moe’s first moves as premier have not included any significant new ideas or major change. And that is likely the best course for him. Whether it remains the best course for his party and for Saskatchewan, now and in the future, will be known soon enough.

Tammy Robert is a Saskatoon based political commentator and author of the blog