BY Jim Harding
Both major parties are in the grips of a leadership race. There is a lot to discuss: our accumulating net debt, dependence on non-renewables, the gathering storm of climate change and more.
The Sask Party however, seems more concerned with rebranding, perhaps to distance itself from retiring Premier Wall. This could be an opportunity for the NDP to propose some bold, forward-thinking policies. But they, too, seem caught in their own baggage, apparently afraid to reflect on the role of past NDP governments in getting us into our present fix.
So, there’s no serious debate over our record-high carbon or radioactive footprint. Or about carbon pricing. No debate over the Line 3 pipeline from the tar sands, going through our vulnerable prairies. No debate over our dependence on NAFTA, with a “roll the dice” president in the White House. No debate about the health of our watersheds and water, on which all of life depends.
The silence is deafening. It is also counter-productive. A sustainable future is not going to come out of political party bubbles.
How did Saskatchewan end up in this political purgatory?
Did Wall perhaps step down so abruptly because he didn’t want to face the electorate again? Any way you cut it, the Sask Party failed to erase the debt, lower taxes and save for a rainy-day fund. Meanwhile the boom brought an end to rural and northern public transportation.
Perhaps Wall now realizes how vulnerable our economy has become, being so dependent on fossil fuels and the U.S. market. He feverishly promoted continental trade, travelling across the border often to promote our oil. But Trump’s ultra-nationalist, protectionism may not bode well for Wall’s legacy.
Wall was quite successful in his ideological mission. Since he took power the value of exports more than doubled from $16 billion in 2006 to $35 billion in the peak year, 2014. But most telling, half of these record-breaking 2014 exports involved non-renewables, mostly oil, at $13 billion and potash at $5 billion. And two-thirds, or $23 billion of the $35 billion in exports, went straight across the border under NAFTA.
But what did this continentalist resource boom bring? What did it leave us?
While exports were doubling, Public Accounts show that the net debt grew from $3 billion in 2009 to more than $12 billion projected for 2018. While the value of exports and profits more than doubled, non-renewable resource revenues remained flat, at around $2 billion a year. And though resource exports remained at $27 billion in 2016, the non-renewable revenue to the province went down to $1.4 billion. This was lower than when resource exports were around half as valuable ($16 billion in 2006) under the previous NDP government.
You do the math on the corporate rip-off.
Even with the “good years”, the Sask Party failed to create a Futures Fund. Why might that be? While the value of resource exports more than doubled, corporate taxes, like non-renewable resource revenues, remained flat, at around $1 billion. And when the Sask Party finally confessed to its debt and introduced austerity after being reelected, it announced it would further lower corporate taxes. So, after this unprecedented resource export boom, we get debt, austerity and increases in the sales tax.
Environmental Rogue province
Wall’s legacy is becoming clear. Our provincial economy is much more dependent on non-renewables, particularly the fossil fuels that fuel the climate crisis. Cost-ineffective carbon capture and ignorant opposition to a price on carbon pollution have made Saskatchewan Canada’s environmental rogue province. The Sask Party failed to diversify the energy sector with job-creating renewables. It favoured toxic agribusiness over sustainable agriculture. Its’ policies squandered environmental health, undercut biodiversity, and further contaminated our watersheds.
This matters a lot, especially to our grandchildren. So where is the discussion? Where is the leadership?
The NDP, perhaps, hopes to regain support from growing disillusionment with the Sask Party. But political opportunism carries big risks. This won’t help the NDP prepare to inherit a multi-billion dollar net debt. This also happened when the Romanow NDP replaced the debt-ridden Grant Devine government. And what did we get then? Cuts to balance the budget and more of the resource economy status quo, which helped us get to where we are.
This time the NDP would inherit a precarious high-carbon economy and dependence on revenue from toxic non-renewables. How would they transition to a sustainable economy? This requires some serious, candid public debate.
It is necessary to understand what the Sask Party has left us. It is also necessary to critically scrutinize past NDP governments that helped lay the ground for Wall’s rise and fall.
Leadership requires honest reflection. Both the Sask Party and the NDP could use a big dose of truth-telling. We need for some truth and reconciliation with the overall electorate. Time is running out for this in the leadership races.
Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He is active with the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association. His newest small book, Moving Beyond Neo-Liberalism in Saskatchewan, will be published in January 2018.