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The Northern Plains Drifter is veteran teacher educator Paul Orlowski. After growing up in east-end Toronto, he spent 25 years on the west coast. He now wanders around the northern plains searching for the ghost of Tommy Douglas. Paul believes that the main tenets of social democracy are the best way to fight against the double scourge of neoliberalism and social conservatism. Civil Society is something worth striving for. Follow Paul on Twitter @npdrifter.

Do Saskatchewan voters really want to increase corporate power?

| March 10, 2016
Image: Flickr/Huskies Football

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Saskatchewan will hold an election on April 4. Premier Brad Wall and his conservative Saskatchewan Party are looking to voters for their third consecutive mandate. Will he get it? After all, the political landscape has significantly changed since the last provincial election in 2011.

First, the Saskatchewan economy is quite sluggish these days, mostly due to falling prices of resource commodities, especially oil. Second, there appears to be a growing taste in western nations to veer away from the political status quo. Popular support for self-declared "socialists" like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. attest to this. It appears that the free market orthodoxy touted by corporate politicians and media for the past 35 years is finally losing its appeal.

Third, and related to the second reason, recent elections in Canada have removed conservative governments at the federal level, as well as in Alberta and Newfoundland/Labrador. In fact, Saskatchewan currently has the only conservative government in the entire country!

Fourth, there is a growing movement across much of the world to finally do something about climate change. Yet, at the recent meeting of first ministers, Premier Wall vehemently stated that he would oppose the plan for a national carbon tax that all of the others wanted. He said too much money would be lost. Indeed, the Saskatchewan government includes climate change deniers who would probably feel comfortable in the Republican Party. Now that's extreme.

There have been political sea changes in Saskatchewan before, of course, beginning with the crushing victory by the Tommy Douglas-led socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1944. This was the first of five straight governments for the party that counts the creation of the first universal health-care system in North America in 1962 among many laudable achievements. Since 1944, the CCP-NDP has formed government 12 times in 18 provincial elections in the province.

Will Saskatchewan experience another sea change away from corporate power? Recent polls show the governing Saskatchewan Party with a large but diminishing lead. Much of the drop is occurring in urban areas, but there are signs that the rural vote cannot be taken for granted.

The Saskatchewan Party has fashioned itself as ultra corporate-friendly -- an argument could be made that it has even been over the top in its desire to please corporate shareholders. Indeed, until recently hegemonic discourses in the corporate media everywhere have supported doing whatever it takes to please shareholders. This includes corporate tax cuts, privatization of the commons, deregulation of private industry, and attacks on unionized workers. These are the major pillars of neoliberalism, the economic doctrine that replaced Keynesian economics in the 1980s. Sometimes neoliberalism is simply called the corporate agenda. These same stances have also been the pillars of Brad Wall's government.

Since first forming government in 2007, the Saskatchewan Party has lowered corporate tax rates from 17 to 12 per cent. At the same time, Saskatchewan's royalty rates on commodities like oil are now lower than in other oil-producing jurisdictions like Alberta, North Dakota, and Texas. The province's royalty rate of 18 per cent is exactly one-fifth of what Norway collects from oil companies. Just one-fifth!

Could this be one of the reasons why the Wall government has failed to maintain funding for public schools? A recent CCPA Report by Dr. David McGrane showed that had funding been kept at the same percentage of provincial GDP as the last four years of NDP governance, almost $2.4 billion more would have been spent on the K-12 school system. Now that's about Saskatchewan's future.

More of the commons is being privatized. Last year, Wall's government began dismantling the province's once lauded universal health-care system by allowing people to jump queue for MRIs by paying private clinics. Does this shorten wait times for MRIs? It hasn't done so in Alberta. One thing for certain, however, is that the privatization of MRIs erodes confidence in the public system.

And then a process called 'Lean' appeared, a methodology the Wall government claimed would improve hospital patient outcomes. Picked up from Toyota's production system, Lean became the government-wide norm for "efficiency" in 2010. A recent study published in the International Journal of Quality Healthcare found that patient outcomes under Lean did not improve and worker morale dropped considerably. Even more outrageous, the study found that for every dollar saved by using Toyota's methodology, Saskatchewan spent $1,511! (Read that last sentence again.)

Only a government beholden to neoliberalism would tamper with the first public health-care system in North America by implementing a car company's methodology for efficiency. If one listens closely, the ghost of Tommy Douglas can be heard saying, "But Mr. Premier, people are not car widgets."

The tax cuts and low royalty rates, in tandem with the global collapse of commodity prices, have resulted in a significant revenue shortfall. Rather than adopting progressive tax strategies and royalty rates, the Wall government's adherence to neoliberalism has led it to make up the revenue shortfall by raising tuition fees and making haphazard cuts to programs and services amid growing public debt.

Moreover, despite numerous denials, the Wall government has sold subsidiaries and Crown assets like the Hospitality Network and Heritage Gas. It has legislated harsh investment restrictions to block Crown corporations from growing and prospering. Northland Power and Algonquin Power have now gained footholds in Saskatchewan as they compete with Sask Energy. And in 2013, the province moved to privatize 1.77 million acres of community pasture lands. Wow!

In 2012, the Saskatchewan government launched a vicious attack on labour rights through Bill 85. This attempt to categorize public sector workers as "essential" and therefore unable to collectively bargain was blocked by the courts. Yet, Wall still managed to decrease worker rights and protections by passing a revamped Saskatchewan Employment Act in 2014. Too much.

It is telling that the cuts to public education, attacks on labour, and privatizing of the commons were made during a time of relative economic prosperity. Like elsewhere, however, trickle-down economics never worked very well in Saskatchewan.

Despite the prosperity generated by the recent resource boom, the province's poverty rate of 15.3 per cent is among the highest in Canada. When one considers race, the statistics are even more disturbing: excluding people living on reserves, Saskatchewan's Indigenous peoples, who comprise roughly 16 per cent of the population, are almost four times as likely to be living in poverty than everyone else! Too sad.

And now the economy has gone south. I do not blame for Brad Wall for this. But I do question why he weakened the commons and did little to help Indigenous peoples during the recent era of prosperity.

Neoliberal ideologues, which Brad Wall undoubtedly is, tend to turn to austerity measures during an economic downturn. As Europe's commoners can tell us, austerity is really only about punishing the poor and the working classes for the mistakes of the wealthy and the corporations.

Saskatchewan voters would be wise to seriously consider the long term consequences of re-electing Wall's Saskatchewan Party with its neoliberal and exclusionary policies. In terms of the common good, neoliberalism has proven to be a failed economic paradigm. Just look at the USA for evidence.

Where is Tommy Douglas? Where is Saskatchewan's Bernie Sanders? Where are the supporters of the province's long-cherished collectivist nature? Do the people of Saskatchewan really want to increase the power of corporations?

I should hope not.

Will Saskatchewan's NDP campaign against the free market orthodoxy that privileges deregulation and privatization over the commons and working families?

Given the current context, both global and provincial, I should hope so.


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