CTV Saskatchewan news anchors Rob MacDonald and Danelle Boivin recently sat down with Premier Brad Wall to discuss the year that was and his outlook on 2013.

CTV News: This has been quite a year for Saskatchewan. How would you characterize 2012 for the province?

Brad Wall: Well, it’s been a year of continued leadership for the province, I think, in a number of categories. When you consider that our economy has remained very strong through the year and there’s been a number of statistics where we’ve continued to lead the nation. Building permits is one; retail sales is another. Even in GDP forecasts by the major chartered banks and others we are forecast to have a good year and remain strong in the year ahead. That growth always meant challenges. Better the challenges of growth, I would say than the challenges of decline. But, nonetheless, there are important challenges to face, and those would be infrastructure issues; housing. We had to provide some additional money in-year for school boards in the province that were growing in terms of enrolment. That was a first-ever - $6 million here this fall. So, I think the year has been good in terms of overall economic growth. But it’s underscored the importance that we remain very vigilant about sustaining the growth and also dealing with the challenges that come with it.

CTV News: The government is boasting that Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada with a balanced budget. Based on the mid-term financial report, though, some would say it’s a razor-thin surplus. Is that a wake-up call for the province?

Brad Wall: Well I think, first of all, if you go back to budget day this spring, there was not a huge surplus there. It was a balance both on what they call the summary financial statements, that’s the overall picture of government, and also the operating account, or the general revenue fund. It was a balance on both accounts, but it was not a large surplus there, and we see that’s still the case today. In fact, it was interesting, we see in this mid-year report you referenced that came this fall that there was the least amount of fluctuation between what we originally forecast in the budget and what was reported midway through the year – the least amount of variation over the last number of years in the province. But there are still challenges – natural resource revenue is down, but a growing economy has made up for it in terms of increased income tax in other forms of revenue for the province. So, it’s not a huge surplus but it’s a balance and it’s unique in Canada.

CTV News: There are factors that are beyond Saskatchewan’s control. We depend on a strong global economy to sell our potash and other natural resources. At the same time, the rest of the world may find itself in increasingly desperate situations out there for many countries. Yet, we are told by the Saskatchewan government not to worry because, as the finance minister puts it, our economy is more diverse. How long can we expect an optimistic outlook for Saskatchewan?

Brad Wall: Well, it’s a very important question. I think you’ve heard us say that as a government and as a province we will not be, as an economy, immune to what’s on around the world. We do see some challenges in the world economy ahead. But what the minister of finance is referring to is that we are more diversified now. The mid-year report demonstrates it, where we do see potash revenues off from what we forecast; oil is off from what we forecast. What we’ve seen, though, is because other elements of our economy are demonstrating continued strength, our income taxes are up and up significantly. I guess that’s what diversification is all about. As a government, we released a growth plan this fall where we highlighted a plan and a vision that we wouldn’t be quite as dependent on the resource sector, but that we would diversify to other sectors; that we would focus on innovation, on the new economy, whether it’s the Global Food Security Institute in Saskatoon or the Petroleum Research Centre here. I think it’s important that we do that because we are not immune to what’s going on around the world. Still, we have a unique and positive story to tell, and it’s up to us to continue to tell it because that’s what generates even more interest and investment back home.

CTV News: However, there are some people who are not feeling the benefits of a growing economy, particularly those needing affordable housing. What do you say to those people?

Brad Wall: Part of our growth plan we released this fall was a $340 million five-year investment in housing, on top of what we’ve done already. You’re right, the housing markets - especially in our urban centres and in some of the smaller urban centres, Estevan is one - these markets are very tight. So, we have a mix of programs to provide incentives for first-time homebuyers; an incentive in the last budget, actually, to provide some tax incentives to those who will build apartments. I think we’re going to see some uptake on that, and then more public housing. We’ve indicated that we need to build more public housing for those who are most vulnerable, and we’re going to continue to focus on the housing issue. In terms of these challenges of growth that we speak of, it’s at the top of the list.

CTV News: One of the most controversial decisions of the year was the decision to axe the film tax credit. That, then, made a lot of production companies leave the province. First off, let’s get you to walk us through the process in that decision.

Brad Wall: Well, it was obviously part of a budget process, and these are times in government where there are difficult choices to be made, and this was one of them. We’ve already touched on the fact that we have the country’s only balanced budget, but even within that balanced budget, we were able to make historic investments for the disabled in our province, in terms of significant increases to income support for the disabled. We were able to make significant investments in infrastructure; increases in capital in health care and education; another record-high highways budget. So, we make other decisions to cut back.

CTV News: Are you regretting it?

Brad Wall: I think it’s important for us to move forward with something that can support, not just the film industry, but all creative industries, and the minister is working on that now. We’re not going to go back to a tax credit that was effectively a grant, where we were basically in a bidding war with other provinces. A lot of the companies that would come in would set up a shell company for the production and lots of the benefits stayed here, to be sure, but a lot of it left the province, as well. And so, we’re looking at a way to focus more on indigenous or companies located here in that industry, but in all the creative industries – in music, for example; in live arts. So, I think you’re going to see some progress on that in the months ahead.

CTV News: Did you anticipate there would be such a backlash to this decision, though? You were even criticized by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce on this. I’m wondering, also, what you may have learned from the way the government handled this situation?

Brad Wall: I think it’s important to learn from these things, absolutely. A budget process is unique in another way, and that’s you make tax changes that you can’t announce ahead of time. By definition, it’s difficult to consult on the substantive parts of the budget – that’s why there’s lockdowns and secrecy. In this case, we made an announcement that did have a large impact on an industry, as has been pointed out, and what was not able to be achieved is some other option in place prior to that change. And so, that’s the part we’re focused on right now, and I’m hopeful we’re going to see some progress in the weeks and months ahead.

CTV News: What’s your message to young students wanting to get into this industry and, perhaps, production companies that are sticking around?

Brad Wall: As you remember, we extended the film tax credit to the end of June, at the request of the industry. I think officials have told me there’s $9 million worth of estimated film tax credit work still going on or to go on in the province. So, I’m not sure how that must be impacting production companies that are here still. But overall, our message to young people in this province is pretty clear. We now have the Saskatchewan Advantage Scholarship to help you pay for tuition. We have support for parents now that we’ve increased as a result of this legislative session to help them save for their kids’ education, and we have the most aggressive graduate retention program in the country to enable those students, if they stay here after graduation, to earn up to $20,000 in tuition, if they’ll stay in the province.

CTV News: Let’s talk ISC now. The plans are to privatize ISC, Information Services Corp., which handles land transactions. The government, under this plan, would keep 40 per cent control. How big of a draw is ISC to investors?

Brad Wall: I think we’re going to find out in the spring, if the bill passes and if the market conditions are right that we can go to a public offering. By the way, we want to start with employees in Saskatchewan, people having a first chance at these shares for this very effective information management company that we have in the province. I’m pretty hopeful, I think the market will answer that question in due course. There’s a couple of very important points. We’re going to take vital statistics that has been currently with Information Services Corp. back into government, so it will not be a part of the new entity, it will be back with the health ministry. Second point, there’s probably $90 million to be raised in the share offering, even though we’re keeping 40 per cent. We’re going to invest that in long-term infrastructure – that’s what the province needs right now. We just discussed housing; that’s a good example of it. We’re going to maintain that 40 per cent interest and representation on the board, and we’re going to want to make sure we control rates. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that Manitoba, where there’s an NDP government, just announced last week that they’re privatizing their registry to an Ontario company, whereas we’ve chosen a public-share-offering route and to maintain 40 per cent of the company.

CTV News: What are the benefits to the people of Saskatchewan by doing this, though? Are you not concerned that fees for land transactions will rise with investor demands, for example, and dividends to the province will be reduced in the future?

Brad Wall: We can prescribe and will rate protection for people going forward. We’re going to maintain what’s called "the golden share," and that means the head office stays here; it means we have certain representation on the board; it means we maintain a certain percentage of the company, and it’s good for the people of the province because we can use the proceeds from the sale to invest in long-term infrastructure across the province. It’s also good because ISC has the chance to compete. Other governments that want to contract out their own property registries are hesitant to deal with other governments. As we’ve seen the NDP government in Manitoba demonstrate, they are willing to deal with other companies. In their case in Manitoba, their privatizing to the Ontario private company I’ve mentioned. So, let’s give ISC a chance to compete. Head officed here, it will grow in this province. We’ve seen examples in Potash Corp. and Cameco where previously government-owned companies have now expanded their jobs they offer here in Saskatchewan, and we think that’s possible with ISC.

CTV News: The Saskatchewan Party government introduced sweeping changes to the province’s labour laws in the fall sitting of the legislature. Why did you find it necessary to do that? What wasn’t working, in your opinion?

Brad Wall: We had promised in the most recent campaign that we would be vigilant about ensuring that our labour legislative environment was fair to both sides, but competitive with other jurisdictions. The minister brought forward the opportunity to consolidate all these various labour-related acts that we have in government into one and begin a consultation process, which we were serious about. We asked a number of questions at the top of that legislative consultation process, got feedback immediately from stakeholders and the people of the province, and that’s why we did it. That feedback was taken into account in the changes. So, there’s some increased accountability for unions to their members in terms of financial accountability. But we also heard from people that, for example, we needed to index the minimum wage, to your question, why would we want to do this? Well, I think its important that the minimum wage be indexed. There’s a bunch of, we’ll call them housekeeping changes, that were made as well, and we’ll now go into the spring session with a bill. The consultation period is not over. We’ve told the people of the province that we’re going to be listening carefully. There may be friendly amendments; there may be changes.

CTV News: The devil is in the details, said the minister.

Brad Wall: Well, the minister said that and, so we don’t know about unintended consequences; we want to get it right. I think we’ve even heard measured responses from all sides, some disappointment on all sides, which means maybe we got it right, and we now have a very modern employment act that encompasses all of these areas, and one that, we really believe, is fair to both sides and, most importantly, fair to the worker and will help the economy sustain its current economic progress.

CTV News: The province is also making sweeping changes to liquor laws – opening the door to privately owned liquor stores, perhaps changing the minimum drinking age, also allowing liquor in strip clubs. What was the thought process behind this? Was it called for?

Brad Wall: Well, the liquor stores are separate from the 77 changes you’ve reference in terms of liquor laws. The short answer on that is yes, it has been called for. Some of the changes were asked for, perhaps not as loudly as others. For example, we heard from golf courses who said, you know there’s a rule that says when you buy a beer on the golf course, the person selling it to you has to open it – it’s illegal for the purchaser to open it. There were a few things like that had been quietly asked for that seemed to be more about common sense than anything else. With respect to the issue of nudity in licensed establishments, we’ve made a change, as you’ve quite rightly pointed out. We’re still, by far, the most restrictive place in Canada because we’re not allowing full-frontal nudity in licensed premises. We also heard that from people, as well, that they didn’t mind being unique in that way and neither does the government. With respect to the drinking age, no decision has been made. That was a resolution at our party convention. I have not heard from a great many people in support of that resolution as we’ve started the consultation process. We’ll have something to say about that in the new year. Finally, on the issue of stores, we’ve had private stores for a very long time in Saskatchewan; we’ve had this blend; we have private offsale; we have private liquor vendors in rural Saskatchewan, where there are not stores. We’ve just decided that, if there is a need for new stores in neighbourhoods that are growing, in our major centres, for example, that rather than put government money into bricks and mortar, let’s have a transparent process and see if the private sector can’t deliver those new stores.

CTV News: In 2012, the provincial government came to the aid of a refugee who needed cancer treatment after the federal government refused to pay for it. You were quite critical of Ottawa at the time. Did you have discussions with Saskatchewan Conservative MPs on this issue, and do you think they did enough to support this refugee who is now in Saskatchewan?

Brad Wall: By and large, we have a very good relationship with the federal government and the federal Members of Parliament. It’s a proactive relationship and they have been a voice for our issues in Ottawa all the way back to the potash takeover. You name the issue that we’ve dealt with; the wheat board, for example. There are areas where we’re not going to agree. There’s been a bit of interaction between Members of Parliament and officials of the provincial government on this particular issue, and on some other immigration issues, where we have concerns – changes to the nominee program that we didn’t support. We’d like to see the nominee cap increase and there’s no word on that yet from Ottawa; we’re hopeful still. And on the issue of this refugee, yes, we were in disagreement. That’s going to happen – provinces are not always going to agree with the federal government and, in this area, we didn’t. We thought it was important that this individual be treated for cancer, including the drugs he needed post-treatment.

CTV News: Aside from medical coverage, when it comes to federal cuts, a lot of them are happening in Saskatchewan. What do you think about that?

Brad Wall: Well, the cuts are being made by the federal government and they’re happening across the country. But, you’re right, we’re very aware of the ones that are happening here in our own backyard. The community pastures has been one that has been raised with us. We are inheriting these from the federal government, whether we want to or not. So, our No. 1 priority is the patrons, for example, those who use the pastures and we’ve said if you’re interested in buying them or leasing from them under similar terms that were there before, we’d be happy to move forward in that regard. So, we will work through these things. We’ve also made changes, spending reductions. So, if we’re focused on a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility here, then we need to be a bit circumspect about other levels of government that will make their changes. But we will speak out for Saskatchewan’s interest, as we have in the past, if there’s a clear threat to those interests.

CTV News: We saw a TV advertisement by the Saskatchewan Party in the fall criticizing the four candidates for the NDP leadership. You’re three years away from a provincial election, why negative advertising now?

Brad Wall: The ad was about standing up for Saskatchewan and it posed a question – why haven’t the provincial NDP and those running to lead it, who are aspirants to be premier, stood up to the comments made by Mr. Muclair, the federal NDP leader, when he characterized our economy as a disease? So, we’re always going to take the opportunity to stand up for the province, and we’ll challenge others who are in our political parties wanting to be the government if we think that they for, perhaps, whatever reason have not.

CTV News: But should the opposition not have the opportunity to choose a leader without interference by the Saskatchewan Party?

Brad Wall: I think a part of the choice for leadership that they’re making is are they going to choose a leader that’s prepared to say look, yes, we have a federal NDP party but when it comes to Saskatchewan, we will stand up for Saskatchewan interests.

CTV News: Can we expect something similar in the months leading up to the NDP vote?

Brad Wall: No, I don’t think there’s going to be anything different or new, in the direct answer to your question. I do think you’ll see our party continue to focus on our record and defend it. But, also, we’re going to use contrast advertising to highlight where we think there needs to be answers from our opponents.

CTV News: Let’s talk about you specifically. You continue to top the polls when it comes to public opinion – the most popular premier in the country. Are those big shoes to fill and do you have a lot to live up to?

Brad Wall: Well, there’s only one place to go from here, and that’s down. I always joke that – it’s Angus-Reid that does this poll, they do them every quarter – I think they oversample at my parents’ because I think I had about a 33 per cent disapproval rating when I lived there. We’ve been very lucky as a government, so I’m going to benefit from that, I guess, in these numbers. We need to always point that out that, with respect to economic growth and even how our party has done, we need to acknowledge the good fortune that we’ve had in things beyond our control. So, we just keep our head down and keep the promises we’ve made and be grateful for the good fortune that we’ve had.

CTV News: You’re a big fan of Twitter, we all know that, and social media. You may have heard of AMA chat sessions – ask me anything chat sessions. There’s a question that’s quite popular out there – given the ultimatum, would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

Brad Wall: I like our chances against one horse-sized duck. We have so many MLAs now that we’re blessed with, one of them Gene Makowsky. I like our chances.

CTV News: If you’d like to address the people of Saskatchewan, we’d like you to, as well.

Brad Wall: First of all, thanks to you two for the time and to CTV for this opportunity. I’d just like to say on behalf of Tami and Megan and Colter and Faith, our family, that we hope you’ve had a great Christmas and we hope you have a wonderful New Year and a happy and healthy 2013. All the best.