Saskatchewan

Austerity platform gives Wall a record landslide in Saskatchewan

REGINA — The Globe and Mail

Re-elected Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall in his office at the Provincial Legislative building Regina, SK, November 8, 2011 (Liam Richards/Liam Richards for The Globe and Mail)

With a booming economy, a landslide majority and populist stylings that have made him an icon in a proud province, Brad Wall now finds himself atop the heap of Canadian politics as the country’s most popular premier.

Saskatchewan voters handed his party an unprecedented landslide election win Monday evening. Polls showed the race wouldn’t be close, but people voted anyhow – two thirds of registered electors cast a ballot with an unprecedented 64 per cent of them backing Mr. Wall’s right-leaning Saskatchewan Party. It won 49 of 58 seats.

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While the outlook is sunny, challenges remain. Mr. Wall must now deliver on his platform’s austerity pledge, pick a cabinet, pay off the debt and start a provincial savings fund. And two battles loom with Ottawa – despite his province’s “have” status, Mr. Wall will be fighting for an equal share of federal health transfers while also pushing to loosen foreign investment rules in his province’s uranium industry.

None of that factored heavily into his win, however. At a time when Saskatchewan voters are nervous to overspend their new windfall, he won by simply promising next to nothing.

“Truly, I think I have the best job in the country right now,” Mr. Wall, 46, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, sipping a Coke Zero in his office while awaiting a congratulatory phone call from Stephen Harper. Mr. Wall says, however, he has no plans to make waves nationally and harbours no federal ambitions. “The job interview process is over for now, and I think the Prime Minister should actually want this job.”

Fresh off his record-setting win – no party in Saskatchewan has ever before topped 57 per cent – Mr. Wall struck a breezy, effervescent tone Tuesday. It’s a good time to be at the helm. Oil and potash have the economy booming (he acknowledges he’s been lucky), the budget is balanced and voters are head over heels for Mr. Wall’s bare-bones vision for a province that for so long toiled in have-not status. They want savings, not spending.

Mr. Wall’s focus will, as such, largely turn to further stoking his economy – including a bid for loosened uranium investment rules. He had previously fought off a takeover bid for Potash Corp., but says investment in new projects is a different beast.

“We’ve always welcomed foreign investment and our oil patch is growing because of it. What we’re saying in the case of uranium is that we ought to just deal with it as the same type of investment,” the married father of three said.

What he won’t be doing is funnelling the province’s new wealth into program spending. Faced with a choice between his trim platform – $414-million in total new provincial spending over four years – and a comprehensive series of NDP social pledges, voters chose austerity.

“I think there was a message yesterday sent by the people of Saskatchewan to all the people contesting election. That was: ‘We need to move the province forward, but we need to do so in a way that’s fiscally responsible,’ ” Mr. Wall said.

The NDP was reduced to nine seats, losing many urban ridings once thought strongholds, while the Greens were the only other party to earn more than one per cent of the vote, but no seats. NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter resigned.

“Obviously as leader, when you don’t succeed, that’s my responsibility and I take full responsibility for that,” the NDP leader said. “Part of the problem isn’t what went wrong but the fact that Brad Wall is a very popular leader [and]the economy is moving along very well.”

Mr. Wall’s first act of his second term Tuesday was to extend a provincial sales-tax exemption on children’s clothing in time for Christmas. This is as much a sign of austerity as any – it will cost a paltry $3-million annually. Going forward, he mused about bringing in laws to make unions (an electoral foe) more transparent and recruiting more female candidates.

His party’s campaign was shrewd – relentlessly door-knocking while going for the throat of Mr. Lingenfelter in attack ads. It worked, burying a party that has so often formed government in Saskatchewan. Major TV networks called the race less than 30 minutes after polls closed.

“I don’t know if it’s a long-term sea change,” the Premier said. “I think people in Saskatchewan are pragmatic. They want to see you keep your promises. They like to see a vision worthy of your province and they like to see you at their door come election campaign and hear what you have to say.”

Mr. Wall celebrated his once-underdog party’s dominance Monday night in his hometown of Swift Current at a community hall called the Palliser Pavilion. The hall is named for John Palliser, an explorer who famously described that part of the province – now an economic engine of confederation – as uninhabitable.

“And, of course, people came to this province, built this province and then started naming stuff after the guy that said: ‘don’t come here,’ ” Mr. Wall recalled Tuesday. “So I thought that was pretty fitting for the new Saskatchewan.”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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