The oil crash has been rough on political leaders, but not Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. If opinion polls prove accurate, the two-term premier and his Saskatchewan Party are sailing toward another solid majority in the April 4 provincial election.
Wall, 50, remains wildly popular despite his oil-producing province’s economic slowdown and deteriorating government finances. Similar conditions contributed to the defeat last year of conservative, oil-industry supportive governments in Alberta and in Ottawa and are even poking a hole in Wall’s narrative that “Sask. Party times are good times” — as Regina Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk recently put it.
“It is pretty interesting to watch how Mr. Wall’s popularity continues to defy the odds,” said Quito Maggi, president and CEO of Mainstreet Research, which has done polling in the province. After eight years in power, “it hasn’t diminished. He seems to have a real knack for being focused on the things that the people in Saskatchewan see as priorities, rather than being sidetracked on pet projects … In terms of his election, it’s virtually guaranteed.”
"He seems to have a real knack for being focused on the things that the people in Saskatchewan see as priorities"
A poll by the public research firm conducted for Postmedia News Feb. 11 of 1,477 Saskatchewan residents shows 49 per cent of respondents said they would vote for the Saskatchewan Party, 28 per cent said they would vote for the NDP – headed by Cam Broten — and six per cent said their ballot would go to the Liberals; 14 per cent were undecided.
“We have got a party and a leader in Saskatchewan that has a very different profile in the electorate’s eyes than the federal Conservatives or the Alberta Conservatives,” said University of Saskatchewan political science professor Joseph Garcea. “A lot has to do with the continued high degree of confidence and respect for the premier’s management of the economy, and public management in general.”
Wall’s championing of issues of national importance — such as his defence of pipelines and of the oil economy — is also playing well at home, Garcea said.
“That resonates quite strongly with a substantial proportion of the population,” Garcea said. “(Wall) doesn’t suffer the same kind of legitimacy crisis that perhaps Mr. Harper and (former Alberta Premier Jim) Prentice ended up suffering.”
Since the election of Alberta’s provincial NDP and federal Liberal governments, Wall has indeed stepped up as chief defender of Western Canada’s resource economy, a role that has endeared him to Alberta’s right and that reflects frustration with other unmoved politicians.
In the past few days alone, he has: warned against a federal carbon tax, which he said would “kneecap” an already struggling economy; asked for $156 million from the federal government to clean up old wells in the province to put unemployed energy industry workers back to work; criticized the potential federal bailout of Bombardier Inc., noting that if Ottawa goes through with it, it should also help Western Canada by approving TransCanada Corp.’s Energy East pipeline project.
“Part of his popularity is that he has this national profile, and that he is one of only a few voices in Western Canada — at least now — and historically has been one of the stronger ones, that is going to be championing oil and pipelines and anti-carbon tax,” said Maggi. However, “as time goes on, and there is more acceptance of climate change, he has to be more careful of people’s perceptions. More and more of our polling and other research sees that few people now deny climate change and its impact, so he has to be careful to stay on the side of facts. And so far he’s managed to do that.”
That’s where Alberta’s Notley and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark have placed their marbles, while distancing themselves from the oil economy.
In Alberta, Notley is paying a high price. A Feb. 17 Angus Reid Institute (ARI) analysis shows Notley’s NDP has fallen to third place in terms of popular support, and only one-third of Albertans believe Notley is doing a good job, down 45 per cent in December. Clark’s approval rating is even lower — down three points from last quarter to 31 per cent, though B.C.’s economy is strong.
In contrast, Wall has the approval of the majority of people in Saskatchewan (62 per cent), unchanged since last quarter, making him the most-approved-of premier in the country.
Duane Bratt, chair of the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the oil crash contributed to Prentice’s defeat and is hurting Notley even more.
She “came in when times were bad and they have gotten worse under her watch,” he said. “People don’t have memories of good times in Alberta under Rachel Notley. There were no good times because she is so new.”
“With Brad Wall, there were lots of good times, almost a decade of good times in Saskatchewan,” Bratt said. “(Under Wall) it was the best time to be in Saskatchewan probably back to the 1910, 1920s. He has that reservoir of good will. He is also a brilliant politician. He has been able to brand himself as Mr. Saskatchewan very effectively.”
To be sure, the oil price collapse has not been as damaging to Saskatchewan as it has been for Alberta. The Saskatchewan economy is more diversified, a sales tax buttresses government revenue, and its projected deficit is not as bad as Alberta’s. Two weeks ago, Wall predicted a modest deficit this fiscal year and next, and a return to balance in 2017-18 if he’s re-elected.
The Saskatchewan election campaign has yet to shift to high gear, and a perfect storm could yet materialize to end Wall’s reign. So far, Garcea said, “nobody seems to believe that that storm is going to develop.” Meanwhile, Wall’s hands on handling of the oil downturn appears to have struck the right tone.