You have to admit it was sort of clever of Brad Wall to try to sneak his sales tax increase and the rest of his mean-spirited Saskatchewan provincial budget in under the cover of the federal Liberals’ national budgeting effort yesterday.
Too bad federal Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau's budget was so bland that news media focused on how meaningless the measures in it were, and how long they'll take to be put into action. In other words: It's likely to be more boring medium term than paying attention to just how unhelpful Wildrose-style austerity turns out to be in Saskatchewan.
Not that folks in the province next door to Alberta would have failed to notice what their "Saskatchewan Party" premier was up to. In fact, a lot of them will likely now be after him with pitchforks, tar and feathers. (Metaphorically speaking, that is, just to be clear.)
But I suspect Wall's audience is no longer really in Saskatchewan, anyway, but in other provinces where he still enjoys the adoration of hard-core ideological right-wingers and in the boardrooms of Calgary and Toronto where he just might want to score some comfortable future "corporate governance" gigs.
Like Alberta's conservatives, Wall had an easy time governing for ages thanks to the oil royalty cash that flowed into his conservative government's coffers in sufficient volume to ameliorate any need for genuinely hard choices or broadly unpopular policies.
He could talk tough about deficits and austerity while delivering pretty much the kind of social democracy folks in Saskatchewan wanted without too much pain. He could afford to pick the odd easy-to-win political fight to look tough by, say, passing unconstitutional labour laws. Hence his vaunted popularity.
But those days are now gone and, one suspects, Wall be gone soon too.
I’m not suggesting he’ll lose an election. He just won one a year ago, for heaven’s sake. But what do you want to bet the supposed Mr. Congeniality of Confederation doesn’t stick around now that he's actually making electors mad? Not with the boardrooms beckoning, he won't.
After all, it's easy to get used to having your posterior kissed. Not so easy to put up with having it kicked by folks who used to kiss it! So stand by for a search for a brave Saskatchewan politician willing to step up and play Don Getty to Wall’s Peter Lougheed, or Ed Stelmach to his Ralph Klein, now that the Saskatchewan balance sheet's not so sweet.
How mean-spirited is this Saskatchewan budget? Pretty mean-spirited.
It’s a classic neoliberal austerity budget with tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and corporations and a tax rise in the form of a one-percentage-point increase in Saskatchewan’s sales tax, to six per cent, that will hit everyone else. Give Finance Minister Kevin Doherty credit, though, at least he didn’t disguise it is a “user fee.”
However, it's really more than a one-per-cent increase, since it'll cover a whole range of previously exempt items and services. (Note to Alberta Conservatives who still love Brad Wall: If this province had a six-per-cent sales tax like Saskatchewan's, we could eliminate the deficit you've been screaming about at a stroke.)
There are cuts left and right, all of which will result in higher unemployment and an even smaller Saskatchewan economy, plus higher taxes or punitive cuts on the traditional "sin sector" -- you know, booze, tobacco and borrowing books from the public library.
Like the decision to shut down the Saskatchewan Transportation Co., leaving the rural poor and many First Nations communities overcharged, neglected or just ignored by the private sector, the library cuts will cost Saskatchewan more in the long term. The former will ultimately mean higher health-care costs, the latter more that must be spent on law enforcement.
But who cares? Or so the Sask. Party must have reckoned. After all, Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto and she's unlikely to subject Wall to the full Ford Bros. intellectual slapdown. And if a neoliberal can't kick the poor to prove he's tough, who can he kick?
Still, this leaves right-wing Alberta party leaders like the Wildrose Party's Brian Jean and the Progressive Conservatives' newly elected Jason Kenney, both of whom have praised Wall fulsomely, in an interesting position. Do they continue to laud him as "the real leader of Western Canada”"(Kenney’s words), red meat to their angry base, or do they find another real leader now that Wall can't score easy points any more?
It certainly does no harm to Premier Rachel Notley's NDP to be able to demonstrate where the policies of the hero of Alberta's conservatives are likely to get us: higher unemployment, a further depressed economy, a net outflow of residents and higher taxes for most of us to boot. Plus serious damage to the effort to build another pipeline to the West Coast.
Whatever they say, you can count on it that Alberta's Opposition parties, just like the NDP, have been praying for higher oil prices -- just on a schedule that maximizes the political benefit for them.
As for all those Albertans who are supposedly "long gone for Saskatchewan," let's just wait a few weeks. What do you want to bet the roads around here are soon once again clogged with badly driven pickup trucks sporting green-and-white economic refugee license plates?
Who will Jason Kenney blame then?
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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