Saskatchewan is not the place it was ten years ago.
There is a confidence that hasn’t always been present in this province. A number of people look at Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall as the reason for it.
He, however, would look back at them.
“People were waiting for the opportunity to be positive,” said Wall.
“They didn’t need the government’s permission, but it helped that the government wasn’t kicking at the dirt and looking at the ground.”
Let’s look at what happened in 2007 when Wall became premier.
The year started out with Saskatchewan starting to see economic improvements. Population numbers began to climb after years of outflow. The employment rate started to increase – for workers of all ages, education levels and cultural backgrounds. Growth in the public sector started to outpace that in the public sector.
Then, there was a political change. In November of that year, a new government was voted into office. And just a few weeks after the vote that saw the Saskatchewan Party unseat the NDP, the Roughriders became Grey Cup champions.
By then, the confidence had taken hold and carried through as Wall won the next two elections – in 2011 and 2016.
Saskatchewan had a new narrative and Wall was a hero in the story. He would not put it that way. Wall recognizes he started his time as premier with luck on his side. The word comes up more than once in a conversation with him in his office at the Legislative building.
“All the way through the first two terms, we were nothing but lucky in terms of what was happening” said Wall in discussing how he was able to promote policy positions and government investment early on.
“In last four five years, it’s almost been half and half of good and bad luck.”
Having experienced both the highs and lows of commodity prices, Wall knows the state of the economy factors into how voters view policy positions. But it’s not their only consideration.
Implementing Lean – the approach that focusses on clients when evaluating service delivery so waste is eliminated — proved a challenge. Wall says had the government communicated it differently, it might have been accepted. Today, it is still present, but would be known as “continuous improvement.”
He also recognizes how attached the public is to owning Crown corporations. That’s something he’s still trying to understand, but he accepts, having repealed Bill 40 just this fall.
In both cases, Wall says the government has listened and then implemented its policies in a way that was acceptable to voters and used their tax dollars more efficiently.
“We wanted to make sure the footprint of government was smaller not for ideological reasons but for sustainability reasons and it is,” said Wall.
Ups and downs are a reality any government must face. They must be prepared for years of growth and downturn. Through it all, focus must be maintained. Wall points to one specific document as the key to his government’s trajectory.
“We all signed onto the Growth Plan. We agreed it was the North Star,” said Wall.
“There are specific policy components in there. It’s not like it’s just 60 pages of rhetoric in a booklet. There are specific plans.”
Those plans included investing in infrastructure. Construction – whether it’s highways, hospitals, schools or long-term care homes – has been important and necessary for his government to realize its growth agenda.
“(Construction is) one of the areas where we’ve seen some success and progress and that was intentional,” said Wall.
Investing in major projects does not win leaders easy votes, Wall says. These projects attract scrutiny and debate – even when the investments being made are at record levels and the infrastructure isn’t just being restored, but replaced and improved upon.
The decision to put tax dollars into major construction projects, such as the Regina Bypass, happened for two reasons.
“It’s a function of government, that (investment in) basic infrastructure. And two, it’s part of our growth plan. It’s elemental to the growth plan to invest in infrastructure.”
Looking forward, Wall hopes that when these projects are wrapped up, the people using this infrastructure will appreciate that it was built. But he is also eager to see Saskatchewan continue to build, particularly when it comes to technology that can support our ability to produce exports.
Farms have gone high tech and with that progress, producers have a greater need for improved connectivity. It’s a project that SaskTel will handle.
Capital is needed to invest that project. In order for Saskatchewan to become the best-connected place in North America, which is what Wall looks forward to seeing, he recognizes SaskTel will have to get “creative” in order to make it happen.
Allowing Crowns to partner with other corporations would have improved their ability to access capital to grow in Saskatchewan and even further. But Wall recognizes that isn’t going to happen.
“I freely admit, I thought Bill 40, which would allow for partnerships, but majority controlled by the taxpayers in perpetuity would be received, if not well, that it would be accepted,” said Wall.
“I really believe they (the Crown corporations) are here to stay. I don’t think it’s good or bad. It just is.”
The Crowns put the premier of Saskatchewan in a unique position. It means there are responsibilities beyond the executive function of government, making the person holding the office closer to being a CEO than premiers in any another province.
But a key difference between a CEO of a private organization and the premier of a province is their openness to feedback. It’s a certain type of person who becomes a politician, Wall says.
“You are in this job because you have to want feedback or you should want to know and, boy, is it ever available on your Twitter feed or Facebook.”
“The 24/7 news cycle and social media has changed these jobs forever.”
He thinks of premiers who have served multiple terms, such as Tommy Douglas who was in office for five.
“I’m not sure if that’s going to happen in the future, and I’m not sure it’s even advisable,” said Wall, who has become the fourth premier in Saskatchewan’s history to serve 10 years or longer.
He recalls a day not long ago when he and his wife Tammy decided to go for a walk. Saskatchewan farmers needed rain badly. She waited to head out while he checked the weather radar on his phone one more time to see if it would arrive.
“It is all consuming,” Wall said of the job of being premier.
“I’m sure it has been true for everyone who has held this job.”
“I said if I was lucky enough to serve 10 years, maybe (at that point) the party and the government would be better served by someone with a new perspective.”
New energy and new perspectives to make the case for positions can be helpful. While Wall points to luck helping his government at the beginning of his term, he also knows it can go the other way.
“If we’ve been less successful in the second half of promoting certain agendas and achieving certain things, it’s partly a function of the luck changing a little,” he said.
Hearing and processing feedback for ten years, however, doesn’t change his belief that a growth agenda is the right one for Saskatchewan. In fact, he’d advise the next person to lead the party and government to maintain a focus on growth, in good times and the not so good.
“That is the DNA of the government and the party,” said Wall. “The new leader needs to update a growth plan and I would strongly counsel the leader to have that. It’s the principle of our government.
“If we’re focussed on growth and if we have some sustainable growth and in down periods, if we’re seeing that down time mitigated, that’s going to sustain quality of life and pay for social programs.”
“The growth plan has helped us to stay focussed even through the interesting stuff, like commodity prices.”
He would also recommend the next leader not get lost in the job. People want to know who their leaders are as people.
“People don’t talk about politics all the time. They talk about football, they talk about music and they talk about camping and other things … If you feel strongly about something and are genuinely interested, and you know others are too, why not share that with people?”
“I’d highly recommend it to others that they should try to do that.”
Wall said he intentionally tried to share his personality and interests during his time as premier. There are benefits, personally and politically, to being authentically who you are.
“When I became leader, I told the senior team that people should see themselves reflected in government,” said Wall.
“That’s the essence of democracy.”
“It doesn’t mean they are going to agree with all of our policies, but at least they won’t doubt our motives.”