In office as premier of Saskatchewan since November 2007, Brad Wall has become one of the most popular provincial politicians of his generation. According to a Vision Critical & Angus Reid online poll conducted earlier this year, for instance, 63 percent of the Saskatchewan respondents approved of the premier’s handling of the province’s business. This flattering approval rating means that Wall is, by far, the most popular premier in the country. In early September, a Praxis Analytics survey conducted for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post showed that Wall’s Saskatchewan Party had a 37-point lead over the provincial NDP. Considering that a provincial election takes place in Saskatchewan on November 7, these were very reassuring numbers for Wall and his party. Unless a last-minute change in voter support takes place, Wall is nearly certain to win the fall’s electoral battle against the Saskatchewan NPD, led by former provincial cabinet minister Dwain Lingenfelter.

The NDP has been struggling to score political points since Lingenfelter became opposition leader in 2008. Despite his sometimes harsh attacks, he has failed to gain ground against the younger and more popular Wall.

Although it would be easy to cite Lingenfelter’s apparent lack of charisma to explain Wall’s political success, other factors are more likely to account for the premier’s favourable position ahead of what looks, to most observers, like an easy re-election.

The first factor to explain Wall’s popularity is the current strength of Saskatchewan’s economy, which has more to do with natural resources and favourable international market conditions than with the policies of the Saskatchewan Party. Saskatchewan is a province rich with oil, natural gas, potash, uranium and agricultural resources. This diverse and imposing resource base is by far the biggest source of wealth for the sparsely populated province. A cursory look at the main economic indicators suggests that the province’s economic and fiscal situation is, at the moment, favourable. In June 2011 the unemployment rate in Saskatchewan was the lowest in the country, at a mere 4.9 percent. Despite clear challenges related to the unstable nature of commodity prices and revenues, the province’s public finances remain favourable compared to those in other provinces. For the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the province should register a modest budget surplus of $115 million.

In light of these favourable economic and fiscal realities, when trying to explain Wall’s undeniable political success, one could quote Bill Clinton’s former adviser James Carville and simply declare that “it’s the economy, stupid.” However, as often in politics, things are more complex than that, as other factors help explain why the Saskatchewan premier is in such a good political position on the eve of his likely re-election. A key factor that his opponents are eager to raise is that Wall ironically benefits from the work that was done by the NPD during its years in office, under the leadership of Premiers Lorne Calvert (20012007) and, especially, Roy Romanow (1991-2001). As former Romanow government finance minister Janice MacKinnon and others have emphasized, when the NDP took office in 1991 after nearly a decade of Conservative rule under Premier Grant Devine (1982-1991), Saskatchewan faced a “fiscal crisis” that pushed the Romanow government to take bold — and frequently unpopular — actions like the closing of rural hospitals to rapidly improve the budgetary situation. In the end, the NDP succeeded in balancing the provincial budget.

Moreover, we should keep in mind that the Wall government has maintained central economic policy decisions like the cuts in business taxes and the new royalty structure for potash made during the Calvert years. Today, Saskatchewan and the Wall government benefit from the policy choices made in the 1990s and early to mid-2000s by the provincial NDP, which is now struggling to remain politically relevant in the context of a provincial “success story” the Saskatchewan Party is claiming credit for.

In June 2011 the unemployment rate in Saskatchewan was the lowest in the country, at a mere 4.9 percent. Despite clear challenges related to the unstable nature of commodity prices and revenues, the province’s public finances remain favourable compared to those in other provinces. For the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the province should register a modest budget surplus of $115 million.

Although Wall inherited sound public finances from the NDP era while benefiting from comparatively favourable economic conditions, it would be unfair to reduce his political success to these two factors. The truth is that the Saskatchewan premier is a shrewd politician who has typically avoided bold ideological gestures to adopt a seemingly moderate, centreright agenda that seems largely in tune with the majority of the electorate on most issues.

Of course, the Saskatchewan Party remains on the right of the political spectrum, something especially visible in the field of labour relations. Since taking office, the Wall government has antagonized the powerful provincial labour movement on a number of occasions, over issues such as union certification and essential services. Beyond these issues, however, that government has, under most circumstances, refused to adopt a radical conservative agenda that could have alienated larger segments of the population. For example, Wall has not even discussed the possible largescale privatization of the province’s Crown corporations, in large part a legacy of previous NDP governments. Interestingly, when Wall acted like a genuine conservative and embraced a comprehensive taxcut agenda, he did so in a way that the provincial NDP could not argue with. As Murray Mandryk from the Regina Leader-Post puts it, “The only real big tax cut has been the increase of the basic personal income tax exemption that benefits low-income earners more than higher earners. That hardly constitutes a declaration of war on socialism.” Beyond the field of labour relations, it is undeniable that the Wall government has not launched any type of overtly ideological and political crusade to erase the legacy of social democratic province-building in Saskatchewan.

The most conspicuous example of Wall’s centrist approach to provincial governance is the way he handled the Potash Corp. file, in what remains the most spectacular political episode of his premiership. When Wall stood up to oppose the proposed takeover of Potash Corp. by a foreign company, BHP Billiton, he adopted a populist stance that transformed him into someone willing to publicly challenge his federal Conservative allies to protect the alleged long-term economic interests of Saskatchewan. Although many economists and investment specialists criticized his approach, it is undeniable that, from a political standpoint, Wall’s decision to push the Harper government to block the sale of Potash Corp. to “foreign interests” was a political masterstroke that increased the premier’s national profile and strengthened his position in the province. Politically, Wall’s behaviour and discourse in the 2010 Potash Corp. debate generally silenced the NDP opposition, which could hardly attack a premier who claimed to defend Saskatchewan against “foreign interests.” Regardless of the policy soundness of Wall’s approach to the Potash file, this episode represented the most striking political success of the ruling Saskatchewan Party. Through this episode, Wall found a way to convince the public to fight with him and, in the end, he did not only win but he triumphed. Although Wall is a low-key politician, his leadership style has convinced many in Saskatchewan that he deserves a second mandate as premier.

Even if Wall had not been so successful politically, it is likely that his chances of re-election would remain high. This is true because, historically, Saskatchewan voters have been patient with first-term governments, seeking stability rather than frequent political reversals. In the history of the province, created in 1905, only once did a ruling party fail to win a second majority at the polls. That was in 1934, when the Saskatchewan Conservatives, elected months before the offset of the Great Depression, were wiped off the map by a massive Liberal victory. Thus, outside the unique context of the Great Depression, Saskatchewan voters have always given a “second chance” to the party in power, even when its first mandate was lacklustre. For instance, this was the case of the first Devine government in the 1980s, which narrowly secured a second mandate in 1986.

Simultaneously, the political culture in Saskatchewan is very different than in Alberta, where the same party has been in power since 1971. Voters in Saskatchewan generally prefer stability over radical change but, at least since the retirement of Tommy Douglas in 1961, they have not developed the habit of easily electing the same party over and over again. For instance, although the NDP stayed in power from 1991 to 2007, it faced strong electoral challenges during most of that period and it even had to satisfy itself with a minority government in the aftermath of the 1999 provincial election. Four years later, in 2003, Lorne Calvert’s NDP won the next provincial election largely because it was successful in framing the Saskatchewan Party as a radical right-wing formation seeking to privatize Crown corporations, among other things. This is probably why Premier Wall has explicitly rejected Crown privatization and why he has embraced a more centrist set of policies than some political commentators had expected. Overall, Saskatchewan is a province that, in contrast with Alberta, has long been characterized by a competitive electoral system and a pattern of ruling party alternance, a reality that may give comfort to disenchanted NDP supporters.

To rebuild itself, the NDP, which is facing some sort of identity crisis, will need more than a younger and more charismatic leader. At the policy level, it needs to distinguish itself from the Saskatchewan Party while staying relatively close to the political centre. In light of the current global economic instability and of the “boom” and “bust” logic that characterizes resource economies like Saskatchewan’s, the scenario of strong economic downturn is always possible. But the NDP cannot count on outside economic forces to find its way back to power or, at least, electoral competitiveness. For example, how will the NDP find support outside the two larger cities (Regina and Saskatoon), in small towns and rural areas where the party has lost a lot of ground over the years? How can the NDP make a case that it is in a better position than the Saskatchewan Party to create a strong economy while making sure that all of the province’s 1 million inhabitants benefit from current growth? The NDP needs to rethink itself before it can truly challenge Wall’s political dominance. Saskatchewan, like any other province, needs a lively and competitive democratic life, something that seems hard to imagine without a strong provincial NDP.

As for the next Saskatchewan government formed after the November 7 election, it will face major policy challenges, even if the provincial economic climate remains favourable. First, although unemployment is comparatively low in Saskatchewan, poverty remains a key issue. This is especially true where the large Aboriginal population is concerned. Representing about 15 percent of the province’s population, Aboriginal people account for more than 25 percent of children aged under 15. Considering that, a key challenge for all levels of government is to work together in order to improve the educational opportunities and the living conditions of Aboriginal peoples in Saskatchewan. Second, as in the other provinces, controlling health care spending while improving access to care is a daunting challenge, especially for the Saskatchewan Party, which is potentially vulnerable to political attacks from the left on this issue. Third, environmental issues should not be neglected, as they represent a major substantive and public relations challenge for the province. Regarding the widely debated issue of electricity, supply, for instance, the next Saskatchewan government, instead of toying with the controversial idea of building a nuclear power plant in the province as Premier Wall did during his first mandate, would be well-advised to accelerate the talks with Manitoba over the possibility of buying hydro power from that province. This would be the best way to reduce Saskatchewan’s heavy reliance on coal while responding to its growing electricity needs.

Finally, because Saskatchewan’s population is now growing fast (by more than 1.5 percent last year), massive investments in infrastructure are needed. These investments should include a push to build more rental properties in Saskatoon and Regina, a city that has now the lowest vacancy rate in Canada. If the province wants to attract more immigrants as well as workers from other provinces in order to avoid labour shortages in key industries, it needs to make sure these people can find a relatively affordable place to live.

This partial list of challenges features some issues that are typically associated with the left rather than the right but this might not be a problem for Brad Wall, who has shown more pragmatism than some had anticipated in his role of premier. If he is re-elected on November 7, will he be able to address these challenges? The answer to this question should help determine not only the future of Wall and his party but also the future of a province that needs to seriously invest in its long-term future instead of simply enjoying the current prosperity, which may not last, especially considering the volatile global economic context.

Photo: Shutterstock

Daniel BĂ©land
Daniel Béland is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and James McGill professor of political science at McGill University. Twitter @danielbeland and LinkedIn.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License