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The Year in Politics: An interview with Sask. Premier Brad Wall
Published Tuesday, December 30, 2014 6:00PM CST
CTV Regina’s Heather Anderson and Wayne Mantyka recently sat down with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall for an annual year-end interview, which is transcribed below.
CTV News: Are you where we thought we would be a year ago, when we last chatted?
Premier Brad Wall: In many respects, yes. We were hopeful at the start of last year that our economy would remain strong and, throughout the year, we posted the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Actually, we’re in our 24th consecutive month of having the lowest unemployment rate in Canada. We added more people; we attracted more people to our province; the population continued to grow and we continued to set records in terms of job creation, in terms of job growth in the province, so that’s good. And the reason why I would focus on the economic hopes we had a year ago is that our government’s vision is that that growing economy is how we’re going to afford quality-of-life things. It’s how we can afford to fix more highways; we have a broadened tax base. A stronger economy lets us invest in long-term care…or in acute care. It helps us build new schools or keep taxes lower; pay down debt. So, if we can keep things growing at a reasonable and steady rate as we saw in 2014, we have a chance then to enjoy the dividend of growth, invest in quality of life and do these other things that I’ve just mentioned.
CTV News: You’ve warned that 2015 could be a difficult year ahead – you’re trying to keep this economic engine going. With falling oil prices, how difficult is it going to be to do that?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, there will be challenges, no doubt. But we have to remember, in 2009, when oil touched $39 a barrel and, what was worse, the potash sales really collapsed. In fact, because of an anomaly, a weirdness in our potash tax system, we owed the companies money. And so, we had a very difficult year in the budget. The provincial budget was balanced by the end of it, but we had to make some tough decisions. But what happened throughout 2009 is that the economy continued to grow, and what you’ve been hearing me say recently is that the provincial budget is one thing, the economy is another thing and, often, they move in tandem but sometimes they’re delinked. That’s what happened in ‘09 and that’s our plan for or our hopes for actually, in 2015, supported by our growth agenda, that we would see, perhaps, a tightness on the fiscal side, where government is making some difficult decisions, but strong, steady growth for the economy. One final point, the oil sector, oil revenue accounts, are about 10 per cent of the provincial revenues. So, not an insignificant amount, but maybe less than what many people thought, and we’ve created 70,000 jobs since 2007. Less than 10 per cent of those have come from the resource sector. We have a diversified economy, we have many sectors now that we rely on. So, we need to meet this challenge of falling prices, we need to balance the budget, and it will be a challenge. But we have to remember that we have a diversified economy and that’s reason for cautious optimism, I think.
CTV News: We want to turn our attention now to a very timely subject – seniors care, and to do that, we actually have a question from one of our viewers:
Viewer: What are they going to do with the care for the seniors that are coming up? I’m a senior now and I’m very concerned about it. I’ve been hearing things in the paper and I know that some things do fall through the cracks, but my concern is where is the money going to come from for helping the baby boomers?
Premier Brad Wall: It’s a great question and it’s not, actually, a new question. When we were first elected in 2007, we set out about to try to deal with what we saw were some deficiencies in terms of long-term care. So, we hired over the intervening period of time 750 more frontline workers in long-term care than existed prior to the election…The reality at the time had been the closing of long-term-care beds, and so we began to build new long-term care facilities – 13 new ones in rural areas, a new one in Saskatoon, one underway in Swift Current, in my home community, and more to come. We recognize that there is more to be done in all of these areas because these stories have come forward, not just this year, but our MLAs have been reporting them even as we’ve invested more in long-term care in Saskatchewan. And so, I think you’ll see in the budget upcoming, even though it will be a tight budget, as we discussed… we’re going to need to find a way to redirect some more resources from administration, perhaps some savings there, but focus them on the front line, on better long-term care, because while we have made these investments and improvements in terms of the amount of resources available, these stories come forward because there are still challenges. There are 8,700 people in long-term care today in Saskatchewan, and so there are very many successful and positive stories about care that have happened through the years in Saskatchewan, regardless of who the government happens to be. But we need to be focused that those are the reality for every single long-term care resident and patient. Even though some might say, “well that is going to be difficult to achieve,” that needs to be our goal. It has been since 2007, that’s why we’ve invested more resources, but we need to do more.
CTV News: Despite those investments, people are still worried, they’re concerned, especially those that are aging. There have been suggestions that we need a minimum staffing level in the homes, perhaps we need a seniors’ ombudsman – a place where seniors could go if they have concerns. It’s a very vulnerable segment of the population. We do have a children’s advocate, so why not have one for seniors?
Premier Brad Wall: It’s something we’re looking at. You know, our government moved to having a separate health-care ombudsman to look at specific health-care cases. In fact, we’ve asked that health-care ombudsman to look at some of the long-term-care cases that have been brought forward, and we’re going to be open to those recommendations. But we are looking now at how a seniors’ advocate might work here; how it works in other provinces – that’s certainly part of it. And, in terms of the resource piece, we have roughly the same complement of people in long-term care. We have put 750 more long-term care workers on the front lines – a nine per cent increase in care aids; 30 per cent increase in licensed practical nurses, that’s the system over, but just in long-term care, that 750 additional complement. So, we also need to ask the question, are we deploying those resources most effectively in terms of making a priority of patient care? We all have family members and loved ones who are getting to the age where or are already of an age and already in care. This is a top priority for Saskatchewan people and we’ve certainly heard that loud and clear.
CTV News: Another big discussion this year was the SaskPower smart meters and, after a number of smart-meter fires, your government was then prompted to stop the installation process and remove those that were already in place. But, moving forward, your government plans to use the same company that first installed the SaskPower smart meters. Is that a wise choice?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, only if they can develop a meter that meets the climatic conditions of our province, and that can be independently verified. First of all, you’re right, our government noted the incidents of fires, so we moved to have them removed, and then we sought to get the money back or keep taxpayers whole, in terms of the investment that had been made in these smart meters. We’ve already gotten some of that money back and the arrangement we have with the company is that they are going to develop – in partnership with the government, certainly under our watchful eye – a smart meter technology that we know will not have these problems. It must be independently verified by something like the Canadian Standards Association or some third-party, well-reputed public lab or testing facility. And, if they cannot meet our standards, we’ll get the rest of the money back and we’ll move on. But we did believe this was a way to recover some funds and also get a smart meter that will work for the province. I’ve said all along that we’re going to be the kind of government that admits readily to mistakes (and) moves to clarify them. You’ll remember we released a fully transparent report that highlighted what the challenge was, the president of SaskPower resigned and we’ve taken steps to recover the resources for the people, in terms of money spent on the meters and to make sure we have a meter that works. And if we don’t have one that works from the company, we get the rest of the money back and we’ll move on.
CTV News: What about the millions of dollars that have already been lost throughout this?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, that’s what we’re going to be recovering. It’s about a $47 million project we needed to make sure we have recovered, and $18 million of it, I think, in cash is already recovered and there is a credit piece here, but we’re only going to be purchasing from the company once an independent group says this meter will work for the province, no matter the weather.
CTV News: Your government has spent a lot of money this year, and in the prior two years, trying to determine how to save money in health care. You’ve faced a lot of criticism over that. You’re exiting your relationship with the consultants a little bit early, in 2015. Why not just pull out now?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, while there’s still results to be achieved for the health-care system, we’re going to proceed. I think the moment we don’t see those results – and we are seeing them, though it’s a subject for debate, and that’s what the legislature is for – while we’re seeing them, we’re going to proceed, and I think that’s what we should do. We’ve saved over $60 million by applying Lean in the health-care system. We use it in other ministries of government. Lean is used by Fortune 500 companies and major medical facilities, hospitals, the world over and used effectively. The Mayo Clinic is interested in what we’re doing in terms of Lean because of the better patient-care outcomes and, also, some efficiencies that can be gained. So, yes, it’s an investment but we’ve recovered more than the investment through Lean… The moment we see that there is diminishing returns for the current contract that we are exiting earlier, we might move out of that contract even earlier than the June of next year date that we currently have.
CTV News: 2014 was a year of population growth, fuelled largely by immigration and, with that being said, we have another question from one of our viewers:
Viewer: What about SINP, the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program, is he going to restart it?
CTV News: That issue has been around for a couple of years. The immigration nominee program rules were altered somewhat a couple of years ago, and there was a lot of concern from immigrant families that it became a little more difficult to bring the number of family members over to Canada that they had wanted to, so where are we going with this program?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, as you know…immigration is a shared jurisdiction in Canada. Under the constitution, the province has a role to play and the federal government has a role to play, in many respects, a superseding role in terms of citizenship and visas and this sort of thing. The federal government made some changes to the SINP program, the viewer is absolutely right, that we didn’t necessarily agree with, but there wasn’t a lot of room for adjustment or change in the federal position. So, we actually worked towards some improvements in what had originally been proposed by the federal government, and I think the proof’s in the pudding. With credit to the federal government, by the way, they’ve also been increasing the number of nominees we get, recognizing the labour shortage; recognizing the fact that we need more people in Saskatchewan. So, our SINP, the nominees since ’07 when we formed government, are up over 200 per cent; we’re closing in on 5,000 a year. Just before Christmas, the federal government announced another discretionary increase for us. So, some of the rules have changed; we weren’t comfortable with all of them, but these were a change made by the federal government, and I think we made a few adjustments that help the family equation a little bit, but probably not to the extent the viewer would like. But this is what happens when you negotiate and work with the federal government. There’s positive things, like an increased number, and some challenges around rules they’ve changed for all provinces.
CTV News: Just recently, Perry Bellegarde was elected as chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Bellegarde took a very firm tone when talking about resource sharing. What does this say about ongoing relations between the government and First Nations?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, we want to be working together. Our government has partnered with our own FSIN (Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations) to work on educational issues. We have a gap on the education side between aboriginal and non-aboriginal, and we’ve invested, historically, as a government to close that gap, and we’re seeing some good results that we want to expand. That was an area that saw increased resources in the last budget. We’ve increased funding to institutions like the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies because they have a great track record of connecting graduates with jobs in the economy and they offer great programs. We’ve increased that by over 80 per cent because of the results. So, I hope there’s an indication there of our willingness to work together on some issues that are very important, not just to aboriginal people, but to all of us in the province. However, we campaigned on a very clear position. It is the position of the Saskatchewan Party government of this province that the resource revenues of Saskatchewan belong to everyone equally, and we already all share in revenue from resources. There is already resource revenue sharing for all people, regardless of whether they’re in a particular, identifiable group. So, when we build a highway, that’s revenue sharing for all. When we invest in a new school in Regina that is attended by off-reserve children and non-aboriginal children alike, that’s revenue sharing. We maintain that position, it’s supported in the courts, by the way, the position of the government and it remains the position of the government. There will be no special deals for any group, no matter the group. The revenue belongs to everyone equally.
CTV News: One of the major priorities of your government has been revamping liquor laws and, in particular, the retailing of liquor. Why tamper with a system that has been around for decades and is actually profitable? It is brining money in for Saskatchewan taxpayers.
Premier Brad Wall: I don’t think it’s ever good enough to continue with something because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I think we should always be looking at improvement and, in Alberta, we saw when they moved away from the government as the exclusive retailer – in terms of the larger stores, anyway, the urban stores – of alcohol and beer, they saw their revenues increase not very long after that. And so, remembering that government will be the regulator; will control the markup; will have taxation policy and, I think, should maintain a wholesaling role, no matter what happens down the road; will be able to ensure the system remains profitable, I think, to the extent it is today. But I don’t want to spend any more money on liquor stores and, in a growing province, there’s times when the liquor authority will come and say, “look, this neighbourhood has grown and our math works out that we can justify a new store here.” In years past, that would be a government store, and we’re saying we should save our money for bricks and mortar for hospitals, schools; we should build highways. Let’s have a competitive process and let the private sector open up those new stores. That’s the policy today, we’re in a process of consultation as to whether that should go further or go back to the way it was and, whatever happens, I can commit to you this – if we’re going to change our current position, which we campaigned on, we will do so in an election campaign so people know and we’ll seek a mandate to do it first.
CTV News: It could be a run-up to an election, these next 12 months. What are we expecting to see from your government?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, we’re going to deal with the budget first, and there will be challenges there because of the price of oil and, like we’ve already discussed, there’s mitigating factors against that providing too much pressure, but there will be challenges to meet, and we’re going to. We’ve had seven consecutive balanced budgets in the province. That needs to continue; that underpins our growth agenda; that’s one of the strengths of Saskatchewan right now. It’s why we have a AAA credit rating from two different agencies and I think we want to continue down that path. There will be more debate because the election is coming, likely in the spring of 2016. It could be earlier, it depends on the federal government.
CTV News: Is that a big priority for your government, of course, looking forward to that election and knowing that it is now just around the corner?
Premier Brad Wall: It’s hard not to focus on an election if you’re in politics. It’s a little bit like Thanksgiving coming at a bunch of turkeys. All of us in politics see it coming and we know we have to be ready for it. We passed set-election legislation that would normally mean the election would be in November of 2015 of this next year coming up. But because of the federal election coming at that time, we’ve moved it by legislation and by agreement in the house, in the legislature, to the spring of 2016. Either way, there will be more politics, certainly. But hopefully, it’s constructive; hopefully, it’s about the issues that people want dealt with in the run-up to an election and during that campaign.
CTV News: We have one final question from our viewers, it’s an issue that just doesn’t go away and here it is:
Viewer: Why would we upgrade a stadium with no roof that’s only open six months of the year for another stadium with no roof that’s only open six months of the year?
Premier Brad Wall: He wants a roof and – unless Santa brought $100 million to (Regina) Mayor (Michael) Fougere or the Government of Saskatchewan, and I don’t think he did – I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that. This discussion continues to happen, but there’s no money trees being planted anytime soon, I don’t think, so I’m not sure it’s on. Other places have built state-of-the-art outdoor facilities and we’ll build one here for certain in Saskatchewan for the Riders and other events, as well, and we’re looking forward to that opening years down the road.
CTV News: We’d like to give you a chance now to send your holiday greetings to the people of Saskatchewan, so go ahead Mr. Premier.
Premier Brad Wall: Well, thanks to both of you, first of all, and Merry Christmas. I hope you’ve had an excellent Christmas, on behalf of Tami and our oldest Megan, her fiancé now, Kyle, our son Colter and our daughter, Faith, and on behalf of all of us in the Legislative Assembly, the Government of Saskatchewan, I hope you did have a great Christmas and all the best for a happy and healthy 2015.
CTV News: I don’t think we can end the (interview) without talking about cars. Last year, we talked about the Shelby Mustang that you restored. I understand this year, you’ve got another project on the go, this one a more-personal one, just for yourself.
Premier Brad Wall: Well, there’s actually a couple. There’s a ’51 Ford I’m working on right now that was Ben Heppner’s dad’s car – Ben was one of our former MLAs who passed away – and it’s coming along. There might be another charity project coming, Wayne, that you probably know a little bit about. In terms of Saskatchewan journalists, you seem to have the inside scoop on all the car ones, among other stories. But I think you’re going to see another charity project come forward that might involve the RCMP and be a pretty special little MOPAR muscle car that we’re quietly working on.
CTV News: It might have a flashing red light on top?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, I don’t know if you’d want a flashing red light on a Charger – it might be a Charger, I think I might have let something slip. Normally, the flashing red lights are chasing those kinds of cars.
CTV News: So, this ’51 Ford that you’re working on, how do you think the new green Rider plate would look on that car?
Premier Brad Wall: I’m going to get one, absolutely. I’m going to get the new collector plate for the ’51 and something else that’s coming down the road in our province is something called “year of manufacture” licences. So, lots of collectors, women and men, have the actual year of their car plate available; they’ve collected it or they have it in their garage, it’s up on the wall. We’ll be able to licence those now soon, so people can phone those in and have those Saskatchewan plates from ’67 or ’51, if you’ve got one, as your plate for your vehicle.
CTV News: Very interesting. Alright, well that wraps up our 2014 year-end interview with Premier Brad Wall. Thank you so much, Mr. Premier, for coming in, answering our questions and sitting down with us.
Premier Brad Wall: Thanks. Happy New Year.