When Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall took on Thomas Mulcair – on Twitter, no less – over the federal NDP Leader’s controversial “Dutch disease” comments, he couldn’t have imagined the national debate his move would touch off.
Three weeks after the fact, the matter is still fuelling political discussion in Canada. While the resultant furor wasn’t specifically on the agenda at the Western Premiers’ Conference in Edmonton this week, it certainly provided a compelling backdrop for the gathering.
Perhaps more than anything, the affair seemed to confer on Mr. Wall a role with which he seems entirely comfortable: protector of the West. Given that he is the senior statesman among a group of Western premiers who have very little experience in their positions, he was the likeliest candidate for the part in any event.
Mr. Wall’s decision to tweet his feelings about Mr. Mulcair’s position was hardly some impulsive, late-night, regret-later move carried out with a glass of wine in his hand. Rather, it was a response to frustration that had been building for months.
It started, he says, when he learned that a delegation of NDP MPs was heading to Washington to “get in the way” of efforts the Canadian energy sector had been making to educate U.S. politicians about the ways in which the industry is moving to mitigate the environmental impact of resource extraction.
Next, someone pushed in front of him a paper Mr. Muclair had written titled Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Country. “And I thought, boy, that’s very helpful given this is someone who aspires to be the prime minister of this country,” says Mr. Wall.
The final straw occurred earlier this month when Mr. Mulcair, appearing on a CBC news program, suggested the oil sands have given the country a case of Dutch disease by raising the value of the Canadian dollar at the expense of other sectors of the economy.
That was it. Mr. Wall took to Twitter as a quick and informal response tactic that was sure to get broad dissemination: “Resources have been the cure not the problem,” he tweeted. “What is the cure? Higher resource taxes? NDP needs to explain.”
Mr. Wall didn’t even need 140 characters to touch off a political storm that hasn’t abated.
The Saskatchewan Premier says Mr. Mulcair’s comments have revived an old ghost, the federal National Energy Program. He says the emotion found in the response of many from the West to the NDP Leader’s postulations on the oil sands is a result of the NEP and the bad memories it brings back of a time when the government imposed its will on the energy sector.
“When you talk about internalizing the environmental costs around an industry – and that’s what [Mr. Mulcair]talks about – that begs a lot more questions than it offers answers,” says the Premier.
“Is that a carbon tax? Is that a wealth transfer potentially? What is it? Until he clarifies what he means, this debate is going to continue.”
Mr. Wall doesn’t detect a tide of resentment growing in Central Canada toward the West and its riches. Canada is a large country with disparate economic interests. “It’s been our history that at certain times one part of the country may be doing better than another and that’s why we have equalization,” he says.
Saskatchewan benefitted from equalization almost for the entirety of the program’s existence. Now flush thanks to billions from potash, uranium and oil, the province is an equalization contributor.
Politically, Mr. Wall couldn’t be riding higher. At 46, he dismisses speculation he could be a candidate to lead the federal Conservatives one day. He doesn’t speak French, he says. More importantly, he has no interest in the job.
Last November, he and his Saskatchewan Party received a fresh four-year mandate from the people. It doesn’t sound like he intends to stop there.
“There’s lots of work to do to sustain the momentum we have,” he says. “We’re going to try and earn another [mandate]in a few years’ time. I’ve got the best job in the country and I’d like to keep doing it for a while yet.”