Over the past year and a half, each of the Prairie provinces held crucial elections resulting in decisive majority governments. These governments will shape the political and cultural direction of the Prairies for the next four years – and, potentially, for a decade or more. As such, this series will examine the leaders we have chosen for this monumental task, who they are and where they plan to take us.
In this third installment (you can read the first installment, on Alberta’s Alison Redford: here, and the second, on Manitoba’s Greg Selinger: here), I examine premier Brad Wall’s rise to power in Saskatchewan and his unique political brand–a mix of down-to-earth Prairie populism and intelligent fiscal policy that has ensured a political climate insulated from the tremendous divisions and overwhelming challenges faced by most Canadian provinces.
Saskatchewan once boasted a robust political culture that sparked the creation of an agrarian, union-based socialist party in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), led by the old statesman J.S. Woodsworth, which held its first national convention in Regina in 1933.
That same convention, with the help of young intellectuals from across the country, produced the Regina Manifesto; a comprehensive policy document calling for the replacement of capitalism with a planned economy mirroring that of the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans.
Saskatchewan then elected North America’s first socialist government in 1944—the Saskatchewan CCF, led by the charismatic Tommy Douglas. Douglas, named the Greatest Canadian in a CBC survey several years ago, was the man who brought public Medicare to the Prairies and who helped convince Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson to expand the program nationally.
To this day, Medicare remains the focal point of Canadian pride and sense of identity, despite its multiple flaws and inordinate costs.
The accomplishment of Medicare, and the almost revolutionary nature of Saskatchewan politics in the early days of the CCF, became muddied over time as the commonwealth federation abandoned socialist economic planning in favour of Keynesian “New Deal” governance in 1956. They later became the New Democratic Party of Canada in 1960, abandoning virtually any notion of socialism in favour of “social democracy.”
Tommy Douglas entered federal politics as leader of the NDP in 1961 and a succession of premiers followed.
Much like Manitoba, Saskatchewan’s electorate swapped virtually back and forth between the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives, but certainly a form of socialism or social democracy has dominated the province since Douglas’s victory during the tail end of the Second World War.
NDP premier Allan Blakeney served from 1971-1982; PC premier Grant Devine governed from 1982-1991; NDP premier Roy Romanow from 1991-2001 and his successor Lorne Calvert from 2001-2007.
In short, the dominance of the NDP and the long tenure of most Saskatchewan premiers ensured the province’s political culture for years remained a subdued distraction from the larger debates in Queen’s Park and Quebec City and, further West, in Edmonton and Victoria.
All that changed with the rise of Brad Wall; the rational, even-tempered leader of the Saskatchewan Party, in 2004.
Wall was the man who ultimately ended 16 years of uninterrupted NDP rule in the 2007 provincial election, and he did it by leading a party whose sole purpose was to unite free market proponents, moderate liberals and progressive conservatives around ousting the Dippers.
The Saskatchewan Party was created in 1997 as a coalition of Liberals and Progressive Conservatives committed to defeating the Roy Romanow government in the midst of scandal. The party’s early success under leader Elwin Hermanson was limited, but Brad Wall—a long-time member of the Saskatchewan Progressive Conservative Party and a player in the province’s business community—possessed the right mix of attributes necessary to secure Saskatchewan’s top job; and to hold on to it.
Indeed, Wall’s “political honeymoon” hasn’t seemingly settled into the barely concealed disdain of a typical electoral marriage. Wall added to his majority with an astounding number of seats (an increase of 11, from 38 to 49 seats in the legislature) and 64% of the popular vote in the 2011 election.
The national press seems similarly smitten with the Prairie premier. And perhaps this should come as no surprise.
Ultimately, Wall came to power as the leader of a party devoid of the truncated historical biases inherent in most traditional Canadian political parties. To the press, he remains the leader of a unique coalition-style government—offering a blend of rational taxation, business, social justice and natural resources policies that have, in total, resulted in measurable economic prosperity for Saskatchewan.
Much has been made, particularly in Manitoba, of Saskatchewan’s fiscal health under Wall’s leadership.
After all, the old birthplace of Prairie socialism was the only province in the federation with a surplus budget in 2012, and is slated to record another surplus in this year’s financial blueprint. This fiscal health is made all the more impressive by the fact Wall did not balance the budget on the backs of the citizenry, but rather through modest program cuts bolstered by vast natural resources revenue.
Wall maintained enviable growth (ensuring his Saskatchewan is a “have” rather than “have-not” province) during a global economic crisis. In 2008, his government was able to boast about the “largest single-year income tax reduction in Saskatchewan history.”
Much of this policy success can be attributed to natural resources development through the mining of Potash (a mineral used to make fertilizer); an industry that has skyrocketed in Saskatchewan and brought the province unprecedented wealth. It is worth noting that, in this realm, Wall’s free market principles have been limited (to great political success).
In 2010, he intervened to help ensure the federal rejection of a hostile take-over bid by Australian company BHP Billiton Ltd of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, Inc. He forced the federal government’s hand, making it clear the prime minister could either abandon his commitment to foreign investment and save Conservatives seats in Saskatchewan, or approve the takeover and risk a grassroots “Anything But Conservative” campaign modeled after what Newfoundland’s Danny Williams pulled off in 2008.
Why did Wall intervene so aggressively? Because, through complex manipulations in Potash Corp, the Saskatchewan Party government (and other governments before them) were able to guarantee maximum revenues and local jobs. BHP would put that arrangement at risk.
Ultimately, over and over again, Brad Wall shows his true colours—as a pragmatist.
And, with the NDP languishing on the Opposition benches after securing just nine seats in the legislature, Saskatchewan’s premier has built a Prairie fortress to rival Tommy Douglas.
Ethan Cabel writes for the Spectator Tribune.
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