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Year-end Q & A with Premier Brad Wall
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall talks about the past year in politics during a recent interview with CTV Regina's Danelle Boivin and Wayne Mantyka.
Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013 11:38AM CST
CTV News recently sat down with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to discuss the past year in politics. The following is a transcript of the year-end interview that aired Monday night.
CTV News: The first thing we’d like to talk about is potash. As you know, a big layoff happened earlier this month – 440 workers. These weren’t temporary layoffs; we believe except for perhaps a few recalls that they are permanent in nature. What does this tell us about the economy of our province and perhaps the future of our potash industry, which the government relies on so heavily – both for jobs and for royalties.
Premier Brad Wall: First of all, we should acknowledge that – notwithstanding the fact that there are other sectors of the economy that provide economic strength – this particular announcement for these 440 families is very, very serious indeed. We have deployed what’s called a “rapid response unit” that’s been in place in the Ministry of the Economy since 2009, that meets with employees and by the time this (TV interview) airs, those meetings will have begun to happen, to make sure they are aware of all of their options in terms of the layoff process, but also in terms of job availability in other areas. Since the announcement has been made, we’ve heard from companies, including Cameco, that’s reopening its mine at Cigar Lake, where they need workers and they’re letting the government know that they’d be interested in looking at some of the candidates here, SaskPower, the City of Regina; a number of other employers. So, we’re going to work hard to try to help provide some transition, some connection, between laid off workers and a new job. It’s also important to note that, in terms of the overall budget of the province of Saskatchewan, potash royalties account for only 3.5 per cent of all the revenues. This is actually down from when we took office in 2007, slightly, when four per cent of revenues were coming from potash royalties, and it speaks to something. It speaks to the fact that our economy is increasingly diversified in Saskatchewan. We have a number of cylinders in this economic engine, and potash is an important one, but there’s oil and there’s uranium and then outside of resources, there’s manufacturing, there’s research and development technology. If you take a look at the job numbers from earlier this month, we actually have seen, year-over-year, a loss in resource-sector jobs and yet a huge net gain in total jobs created – 12,000 new jobs year-over-year. The reason is a big increase in research and development technology by 3,000; big increase in manufacturing – 1,500 jobs; big increase in agriculture by 1,400. So, we’re not being cavalier about it. This is a very difficult announcement for the workers and the potash industry, in this particular company’s case, is dealing with a slowdown. But there’s more to Saskatchewan than just potash and it’s also important to note that the two new projects are going ahead, according to the companies. That’s the BHP mine and the K+S near Moose Jaw. So, again, this is serious but there are other elements to the economy and still attendant strength in the long term in the potash industry.
CTV News: There’s no doubt that people identify Saskatchewan with the potash industry – they’re synonymous. So, are we concerned that this could just be the tip of the iceberg? Even though, as you say, we have a diverse economy, it is a huge part of it.
Premier Brad Wall: Well here’s some numbers that might help answer that question. When the budget was first tabled for this year, it was a balanced budget that looked to potash to generate about $500 million in resources. It looked to oil to generate $1.3 billion in financial resources for the government. You’re right, though, this is interesting. It’s this perception, even outside of our province, that potash is the sector. It’s very important, but frankly energy is more important. The manufacturing sector, increasingly, is more important, and we’ve got to focus on diversifying. We do need to make sure we’re doing that. But we have been for the last six years or so and we see the results, when you have a net loss in resource sector jobs in the potash industry, year-over-year but yet, in total, we’re gaining jobs because of these other sectors. So, it’s an important message for us to get out to investors outside the province, as well, that this is a diversified economy and we have a lot to offer, including by the way, the largest harvest ever has come off the fields and more value added in agriculture. Our exports are up significantly. We beat British Columbia last year, if you can believe it, on the strength of agriculture, actually, which was fully a third of those exports.
CTV News: So in terms of these other sectors, what are your plans to leverage that?
Premier Brad Wall: I think we have to stick with the fundamentals. We’ve said, as a government, that we’re not going to try to pick winners and losers. In the past, governments of all stripes have used taxpayers’ dollars to provide grants to companies, and we’ve found that that just didn’t work. When we took office, we said we would stop that and focus on the basics. The basics, for us, are competitive taxes. The basics for us is a labour legislative environment that’s also competitive with other jurisdictions. A plan to invest in infrastructure and our international engagement program, where we are trying to tell Saskatchewan’s story, hopefully like it’s not been told before, all over the world and supporting trade missions and seeing these exports increase. So, for those of the private sector or the corporate community looking in on us, we can tell them that if they like what they’ve seen in the last six years in terms of government policy, getting the fundamentals right, they’re going to like what we do in the future because we’re going to stick to that. By the way, the cornerstone of that is fiscal responsibility. We’ve got to make sure we’re minding the public purse and not spending more than we’re taking in, because that’s the foundation for long-term success, not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of affording the social programs and the health care that we want to provide on into the future.
CTV News: Recently, the provincial auditor has come out to say she’s unhappy with the way the province keeps its books, essentially two books, and she feels that proper bookkeeping would put us in a nearly $600 million deficit. Right now, we’re looking at $58 million surplus. Why has the government not molded to what she wants to see?
Premier Brad Wall: It’s important to note that our government has not changed how we do the accounting in this province. In fact, it’s basically the same dating all the way back to about 2004, and so she’s had this argument with our government and had it with the previous government. Whoever the auditor happens to be at any given moment has had the same challenge, I should say. The exception she takes is that we keep track of the operating account of government, the general revenue fund, sort of the daily in and out, and we also, though, account for the overall financial picture of government, called the summary financial statements. She would like us to focus on the summaries and simply report the summaries, and we’re looking at this recommendation, even for this upcoming budget. Now, it’s important to note that even in her most recent report, if you look at our government’s finances on a summary financial basis, you’re going to see her confirming a surplus. You will also see her saying that this is an unqualified audit, in other words that she has no problem at all with the accounting in that summary financial statement. So, if we were to move to this kind of reporting, we’re in a surplus position, one of the few places in North America that is, and no particular concerns with the accounting. Now, to be fair, as you pointed out, on the GRF or the operating side of things, she would like us to include things – and by the way this is the argument with successive governments – things like pensions, where we’re saying well, it’s more of an operating account and we would disagree in principle with that. When you remove those longer-term issues like pensions and look at the operating state of the province, it is in balance, it is in surplus. But to be fair to the auditor, we’re going to look very carefully at her recommendation that we move to this sort of overall budgeting, focus on the summaries. But I think it’s important we continue to report on the operating budget of the province. Families do that – they have a chequing account, an operational account; businesses must do that, and I think for the average person, they want to look in on government and determine whether or not revenues match expenditures. We ought not to be borrowing for short-term expenditures or short-term deficits and we’re simply not going to do that, and we’ll take decisions to avoid it in this budget cycle upcoming. But we’re going to look carefully at her recommendations with respect to focusing on those overall summary financial statements.
CTV News: The auditor was also critical of emergency room waits, in particular in Saskatoon. We know it recently happened here in Regina, where they almost had to close the Pasqua Hospital emergency department, at least reduce the hours. What is the government doing on a broader picture, in particular for families that can’t find a family doctor or a family waiting for a long-term care bed for a loved one. There just don’t seem to be enough.
Premier Brad Wall: It’s not just a priority for the auditor, it’s a priority for the government, it’s a priority for the people of the province, and the media, frankly, have done a good job of asking questions, so have the opposition. Since 2007, when we were first elected, we set out to increase the number of doctors in Saskatchewan through a number of different ways, to answer your question very directly. We’ve increased the number of training seats in the province, almost doubling those. We have increased the number of residency positions, we have doubled those, from 60 to 120, so that we can do more of the detailed residency position training here in province. We’ve also expanded the number of countries from where we can accept foreign-trained doctors, and we’ve looked at the qualification situation. All of that has led to some success, although more is needed. There are 300 more doctors practicing today in Saskatchewan than when we took office. But that’s not to say that the work is done. There clearly are shortages, there are clearly families still looking for a GP. The emergency room doctor shortage that’s facing the country and really, in some ways, North America, did hit home here. So, I was very pleased that the health minister, the ministry and the region were able to work on a new agreement with ER docs and avoid the closure or the temporary suspension of hours through the night. So, those are the specific things we’re doing. By the way, on the emergency room doctors front, we’ve seen the number of training spaces for that specific kind of doctor skills move from two when we took office a year to eight now, and two more positions for what’s called the “royal accreditation” approach, where emergency docs get the greatest amount of training they possibly can to maximize their utility in the system. We’re also going to use things like the Meadow clinic in Regina to complement it, and our view is to get to a point where people don’t wait in the ER, period. That’s a goal we’ve stated publicly, but there’s more work to do.
CTV News: Given that our population has gone up, though, and our hospitals aren’t getting bigger, they’re trying to be more efficient, but they’re still the same size, built for a smaller population. Do you think we need to look at a larger hospital, a larger health care system?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, there’s different ways to use beds these days, certainly, and we have to make sure we’re using all of the latest modern approaches, LEAN they call it, to effectively use the beds that are there. But as you know in Regina, with the Plains Health Centre that will be opening, there will be some relief there, at least in terms of day surgery. We are seeing bed capacity increases because we’re looking outside the major cities to shore up what’s happening in regional centres in rural Saskatchewan to avoid the pressure coming into our major cities. But we’re looking at this very question – do we need to move beyond efficiencies and look at bed complements or look at other ways to deal, whether it’s the Plains Centre that will open here in Regina or even other clinics like the Meadow to relieve pressure, either from ERs or later from acute centres. The other thing we can do to help is build more long-term care beds. Since our government took office, we’ve initiated the construction of 13 new long-term care facilities, plus partnered with the Catholic Health Ministry on Amicus. There’s more of that to come and as those new beds are added, after years of actually bed closures, frankly, as those new beds are added, that will relieve pressure on acute-care beds, as well.
CTV News: How would you characterize 2013 overall for the province?
Premier Brad Wall: We hit 1.1 million people. It wasn’t very long ago when some academics and many in politics said it was statistically impossible, even for us to grow at the national average, which was strange, I thought at the time, because we weren’t talking about Bigfoot, we were talking about our population, with all of the resources we have, simply keeping up with the national average of one per cent a year. But when we came up with that as a political party as a goal, an objective, almost 10 years ago, there were those that said it was impossible. Now, the government didn’t do it, I’m not saying look at how wonderful the government is because we’re 1.1 million people. But the people of the province believed in this province and in its potential long before people perhaps in either academia or politics did, and look what they’ve built. This is an amazing feat and we know there are challenges with growth but rather have those than the challenges of decline, where our tax base shrinks and then we’re unable to deal with long-term care issues or get a new settlement with ER docs that costs more money to keep them here in the province and may be coming from other places. So, the challenges of growth are preferred and I think that’s a highlight. There was also that Grey Cup; that was also kind of probably a highlight for the year.
CTV News: How much longer do you think our province can ride this wave of prosperity? We’ve noticed what’s happened in potash; we’ve had some softening in real estate prices, in particular in Saskatoon. Here in Regina, I think we have a thousand homes for sale right now, which is more than double what we had a couple of years ago. Is our rate of growth starting to slow a little? Do you think we can keep this going much longer?
Premier Brad Wall: I think it’s the right question, is the rate of growth slowing? It might be for this year because of some very temporal things in the potash industry. Those who observe the industry, by the way, will say there’s long-term strength. At $97 less Texas, the oil industry is strong and we’ve talked about uranium opening up a new mine and manufacturing up and the strength of a diversified economy. But if there is a slower rate of growth, and the Conference Board earlier this month said that the growth rate might slow to 2.3 per cent a year, but that our economy would remain robust, in other words, strong, that’s not such a bad thing. It’s not such a bad thing if we have a bit more supply in housing so that the affordability issues can start to be addressed because if we’re going to keep up with the challenges of growth and stay out of growth’s way so that it can continue, affordability is important; infrastructure is important. The inflation, the cost of construction, is important to see it at a sustainable rate. So, I’m hopeful. Not very long ago in Saskatchewan, the choice wasn’t between really fast growth and moderate growth, the choice was between growth and, all too often, no growth at all; decline. But here we have a different discussion. So, I do think the long term is very good; the midterm is very hopeful here in the province to see this sustained growth continuing, and it looks like others are agreeing in terms of those who make these observations at firms that do econometrics and forecasting.
CTV News: The NDP had a big year, bringing in a new leader. What’s the dynamic between you and the NDP’s Cam Broten? Are things different from past leaders?
Premier Brad Wall: I think they’ve done a good job of being the official opposition, and I’ve said this in the media interviews since the session. But there are two elements to being in opposition, and I was the opposition leader for a time. You have to oppose, you have to hold the government accountable, and I think they do a good job of this. But you also have to propose, especially as we’re getting closer and closer, obviously, to the next election. So, that’s the only thing I’m waiting for, especially on the issues of the economy, what are their thoughts? Because they were in favour of massive tax hikes for the potash industry. Where would we be today if that was the case? How many more layoffs might there be?
CTV News: Would you ever consider a proposition from the opposition?
Premier Brad Wall: Absolutely, I think it’s reasonable. In fact, on the smaller pieces, on some private member’s legislation, Howard’s Law is a good example, we credit the NDP for leading on that, and now we wait to see on some of the big issues. It’s one thing to come into question period and say you’re not doing this and we need this many doctors or that many health care workers or this many publicly provincially funded firefighters. All of those are important issues and worthy of debate, and now we need to get to the point where we see some proposals from the opposition as to how they might do it, and then we can have the full debate and people will be able to decide in just a few short years. But overall, I think they’ve done a good job. We’ve worked hard to respond to issues they’ve raised, but also the issues that people of Saskatchewan raise with us every day.
CTV News: Was there something this year that maybe really disappointed you, if you had to pick one thing and maybe what was your proudest moment, maybe even outside of the Grey Cup win?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, I can’t take credit for the latter one. But I think I said in the growth plan speech that I think the government has worked hard on two principles of growth. One, to see if we can help sustain it, to be a force for good, even though the government shouldn’t take credit for the growth, but we can do the right things to set the environment. I think we might have got some of that right. Where we can do better, to your question, is keeping up with the challenges of growth, whether it’s in health care or education or infrastructure, we can do a better job there. What about the successes? Well, again, it’s not the government that did it, but it was wonderful to be in the job I have to watch the province hit 1.1 million people. Those are the big issues. There are some little issues that it’s rewarding to get involved in. This network, this station, raised the plight of Alison Morris in southeast Saskatchewan and her Suburban that was stuck at the border, and others did too on social media. So, I got involved in that one and, to the credit of the federal minister and all of the other people that did a lot more than I did. But we saw that resolution where the family was able to get that truck and use it, which was just a common-sense development in the favour of that family. So, the big things are interesting, but some of those little things, not little for the family, but in the big scheme of things, the individual issues are as rewarding as any.
CTV News: What is one thing that you think perhaps the people of this province don’t know about you?
Premier Brad Wall: I’m not sure. I’ve been at this job a lot, maybe they would probably say we know too much about you, Brad. I like to cook, it’s a great way to spend time with Tami. We like to cook together on the weekends.
CTV News: Anything in particular?
Premier Brad Wall: There’s quite a few dishes. I like different risotto dishes. It’s a patient thing and it’s a good chance to visit.
CTV News: Now, are you good?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, it depends who you’re asking. If our son’s home from university and he’s really, really hungry, it turns out pretty good. But if someone’s maybe a bit more discerning, then I know they probably don’t want to hurt my feelings.
CTV News: And you love Chrysler products from the 1960s. I noticed on the street, the Charger is back, the Challenger is back, now the Dart is back…
Premier Brad Wall: They brought the Dart back. It’s fine, and it doesn’t look anything the old one.
CTV News: But some look a little like the cars did.
Premier Brad Wall: They do. The Challenger does, even the Chevy Camero and the Mustang looks pretty good. Sort of this retro back to the muscle car era. I have a ’67 Dodge Coronet, Tami calls it a ’67 midlife crisis, but I’ve been working on it for a while, I did the engine last year and it’s great fun. I was in my first car show, it was funny, it was this year in Swift Current and the Rider game was on, so nobody was actually looking at cars, they were just wandering around asking everyone else what the score was. But I do like cars.
CTV News: We have a short time left, is there something you wanted to say to the people of Saskatchewan?
Premier Brad Wall: Well, on behalf of Tami and Megan and Colter and Faith, and also on behalf of all of my colleagues in government, the MLAs, the people that serve in the government of Saskatchewan, we just want to say to all of you hope you had a great Christmas and all the best in 2014.