Thank you, Brad

By Derek Lothian. 

Sitting at my kitchen table on the evening of August 9, I was suffering from a bout of writer’s block. I had struggled through all but the final paragraph of this column, yet couldn’t find the right words to precisely summarize the point I was trying to make. So, I closed my laptop and did what any other Saskatchewanian would do — flipped on an episode of Corner Gas.

The next morning, plunked down at that same kitchen table, this column unexpectedly began to rewrite itself: Brad Wall had just announced he would be stepping away from politics after a 10-year run as Saskatchewan’s premier.

Granted, an elected official departing the political scene, regardless of seniority, is not necessarily noteworthy. Even as a recovering political junkie myself, I must admit the Trumpian drama south of the border has been enough to numb me from much of the routine noise I’d otherwise gobble up. This, however, was different. This one hit home.

Many of my friends in Ottawa and further east have long questioned the local appeal of Canada’s most popular premier. They see a pain-in-the-ass contrarian, hell-bent on fighting the federal machine and ensuring Justin Trudeau serves as a one-term prime minister. In contrast, many on the Prairies view him as Western Canada’s white knight — the last crusader to champion the nobility of resource development and economic prudence. As with most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Brad Wall is nothing if not a complex public figure. He is a boisterous cheerleader for free market solutions in a province riddled with Crown corporations, a little-C fiscal conservative prepared to piss off his most loyal supporters rather than run a deficit, and a true pragmatist equal parts stubbornly principled and populist. To me, he is the best prime minister we will never have.

I moved back to Saskatchewan from Ontario in 2014, in large part because I shared in Wall’s passion and optimism for the future of the province. By that time, Saskatchewan had well eclipsed one million people. Skilled graduates were no longer our chief export, and Calgary had finally lost its moniker as Saskatchewan’s most populous city. I remember flying into Regina every Christmas, marvelling at the sheer scale and pace of development — entire new neighbourhoods, complete with shopping centres and restaurants, that weren’t there 12 months prior.

If there is a question mark on Wall’s long-term legacy, it will be on whether enough was done in the good times to prepare for the bad. Just this past spring, Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government tabled the toughest budget in its tenure, projecting a $685 million shortfall, despite raising the provincial sales tax (PST) rate and removing massive PST exemptions on insurance premiums, construction services, restaurant meals, children’s clothing, and fixed equipment in the resource sector. In the weeks that followed, ‘Where did all the money go?’ re-emerged as the rhetorical rallying cry of opposition MLAs.

Ever the salesman, though, Wall had an answer for his critics.

In his keynote address at the 2017 Premier’s Dinner in Regina, Wall exclaimed (and I’m paraphrasing): “$6 billion in cumulativetax relief, $20 billion in new infrastructure, 800 more teachers, 40 new and replacement schools, $1.4 billion in new health care infrastructure, 15 brand new long-term care facilities, a new hospital for Moose Jaw, the replacement of the 100-year-old Saskatchewan Hospital in North Battleford, building of a new children’s hospital, 750 more doctors, 3,000 more nurses, and $350 million over nine years that took the longest waitlists for surgery in Canada to the shortest — that is where the money went.”

Wall’s detractors — and those looking in from the outside may be surprised to learn he’s amassed his fair share (it tends to happen after a decade in office) — will undoubtedly take issue with those talking points. And, in some cases, perhaps justifiably so.

That said, I’m not sure it matters. Owning the narrative has been Wall’s most effective ability; and I would contend we as taxpayers have reaped the benefits as a result. Investment has flowed, business has prospered, the population has flourished, and we are punching above our weight class in the international arena. Few will debate style versus substance when you’re producing results.

For manufacturers, the proof is in the pudding. Since Wall was first elected premier in 2007, manufacturing sales in Saskatchewan have swelled by 37 per cent — nearly 13 times the national average. Manufacturing exports have spiked 48 per cent. Average weekly earnings for manufacturing employees are up 33 per cent — roughly double the rate of inflation.

In the height of the boom, companies quite literally could not keep up to demand; and several adopted the employment policy ‘if you have a pulse and show up to work, we’ll hire you.’ Business was good.

Did record commodity prices play a role? Of course. Is there room for improvement? Plenty.

Saskatchewan’s share of manufacturing exports comparative to total manufacturing sales, for instance, hovers around 42 per cent — well below the marks of 53 per cent and 67 per cent set by Manitoba and Ontario, respectively. And of that number, three-fifths are sent to a single market — the United States. We need to do better.

Still, there is no disputing that Wall will leave the industry in a far better state than when he found it.

Two of his most lasting impacts on the sector could very well be measures introduced in his final years as premier.

The rollout of the Saskatchewan Commercial Innovation Incentive — a more liberal application of the ‘patent box’ model used in other parts of the world — is the first of its kind in Canada, providing a lower tax rate on income derived from new innovations brought to market. It is a program for which I have personally advocated for many years, and believe has the potential to significantly accelerate research and development and enhance the global competitiveness of Saskatchewan-manufactured goods.

The second major highlight is far less sexy, and much more controversial. In the summer of 2014, Wall announced the launch of Priority Saskatchewan — a government body mandated to modernize procurement practices, level the playing field for Saskatchewan suppliers, and ensure provincial agencies and Crown corporations are purchasing on the merits of best value, not lowest price. Opponents have suggested this approach smacks of protectionism; others fume these actions do not go far or fast enough. I err on the side of ‘if everyone is mad at you, you must be doing something right.’ Nurturing a deeper, more competitive supplier base — whether they end up landing substantially more domestic work or not — can only yield greater success outside our own borders.

Wall is departing politics at a time when, on principle, it is difficult for him to leave. Few elected officials would do so, with as much humility or grace.

But change is good, and I am confident the best is yet to come. That belief — a conviction in ourselves — is the legacy Brad Wall will leave behind.