Political coverage was wall-to-wall Brad Wall yesterday as mainstream media said farewell to their beloved posterboy for Western Canadian austerity.
Saskatchewan Premier Wall — once known as the Mr. Congeniality of Canadian politics, but lately an increasingly cranky figure as recession and persistently low oil prices exposed the cracks in his government’s austerity and privatization agenda — gave his last speech in the province’s legislature in Regina.
In response, media really poured it on.
CTV alliteratively recounted yesterday’s “tears and tributes” in Regina.
Postmedia’s reporter seemed to suggest Wall got his inspiration from Abraham Lincoln, leastways, the Disney version of the Civil War U.S. president. The story didn’t actually say Wall was born in a log cabin, but it came close.
To the CBC, he was “Just Brad.”
You get the picture.
What you didn’t get from the media was much of what Wall actually said — which from the few quotes provided by reporters mostly seemed to be the usual anodyne platitudes uttered by exiting Canadian politicians on their way out the door.
Well, give the man his due. The Swift Current MLA was premier for 10 years, led his Saskatchewan Party to three big majorities, and was very popular with voters through most of his career.
The rebranding of the Saskatchewan Progressive Conservative Party was made necessary by the mid-1990s corruption scandal in Saskatchewan that saw more than a dozen PC MLAs convicted. Wall made it work.
While Wall’s mood turned sour with the onset of low petroleum prices, the defeat of the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa, and the reluctance of some provinces to see bitumen pipelines from Canada’s Prairies running through their real estate, he had the wit to get out before his reputation was in tatters. Some other Saskatchewan Party premier will now have to take the blame as the provincial economy moves further south.
The election of an NDP government in Alberta seemed particularly to get up Wall’s nose. He showed up in Calgary from time to time to complain petulantly about Premier Rachel Notley to conservative-dominated oilpatch audiences.
This hostility may be what’s driving Saskatchewan’s nutty ban on Alberta licence plates on highway construction worksites. Indeed, Wall took time out from his round of farewells yesterday to insist Saskatchewan won’t be backing off the Plate War any time soon.
This prompted jeers from Alberta’s government. Trade Minister Deron Bilous called him “desperate to change the channel from his bad-for-business budget” on the CBC’s morning radio show yesterday. Premier Notley told the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce that “what’s really going on here, we know full well, is the Saskatchewan government decided to slap a 6 per cent tax onto the construction industry and people are hurting and they’re trying to distract from it.”
She got laughs when she joked that “if any of you drove here and have a Saskatchewan licence plate, you might want to move your car, because we are towing.” And she got a standing ovation at the end of her speech.
The late stage of Wall’s political career casts some useful illumination on the problem for neoliberal ideologues who want to move democratic societies like Canada’s toward full-blown austerity and privatization, a process that requires an economic boom sustained by high commodity prices to succeed.
As with the schemes of Margaret Thatcher, Stephen Harper and Ralph Klein, revenue from the export of petroleum products was supposed to pay for huge tax cuts and (temporary) maintenance of public services to buy social peace during the transfer of wealth to the richest classes and transition to privatization.
For years, the oil money pouring into Saskatchewan sustained Wall’s distracting slight of hand, which was necessary to fool voters into thinking they could have both neoliberal austerity in government and a booming civil economy.
Alas for him, the boom ended too soon to complete the work of weaning Saskatchewanians off government services and redirecting the taxes that pay for civil society into the pockets of the government’s wealthy patrons. It turns out it was easy to be the most popular guy in the West when your coffers were overflowing. When they weren’t? Not so much.
When the cracks started to appear, it wasn’t just Mr. Wall that got cranky. So did significant numbers of former Saskatchewan Party supporters, particularly in the province’s urban areas. Not all of them, it turns out, blame the government of Alberta for their problems, presumably contributing to the timing of Mr. Wall’s prudent exit.
The Saskatchewan Party will choose a new leader on Jan. 27.
At 52, Mr. Wall is still a young man. So he’ll probably find a way to continue to be a public nuisance.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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