Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Three and Beyond

Brad Wall’s eye is on the bigger prize: making history

By John F. Conway
Prairie Dog

Perplexed by his apparently ideologically inconsistent behaviour, many political gurus are confused about Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s big picture game plan.

Wall trashed the labour movement with tough anti-union laws yet has bent over backwards to avoid contentious major strikes. Settlements have been achieved with most of the big and combative unions — the ones which have demonstrated in the past an uncanny ability to mobilize widespread public support during bitter and protracted strikes (nurses, hospital workers, government employees and, still pending, teachers).

Wall appointed the lead civil servant from the previous NDP government, Dan Perrins, to carry out a public review of the province’s options regarding development of the uranium industry, including building reactors and storing waste. The report documented public concerns and fears, and made clear that any effort to force through pro-nuclear policies would deeply polarize the province and seriously jeopardize the public interest.

Wall declared the province once again open for business and many shuddered, expecting the ideological, knee-jerk pro-business excesses of the Thatcher and Devine eras. Then he fought the potash takeover, turned Harper around on a dime and squeezed concessions from PotashCorp.

In the last year Wall emerged second in popularity among Canada’s premiers, hard on Danny “Hugo Chavez” Williams’ heels.

Make that first now that Williams has retired.

After Wall’s victory many expected the social welfare system would be thrashed, as it was under Thatcher and Devine. Yet Wall has enhanced it to some degree (previous NDP governments had already trashed it), implementing reforms even Calvert’s NDP government resisted. Wall appointed a former NDP Social Services minister, Bob Pringle, to chair a panel to review the province’s shoddy and crisis-ridden child welfare system. Pringle’s recent report is a massive indictment of the provincial system under present and former governments. Though weak on specific recommendations, the report is no whitewash and points in only one direction — a major, pro-child overhaul and a great deal more money and professional staff.

Many expected a heartless purge of the civil service after Wall’s victory, similar to those after the victories of Thatcher and Devine, and on a smaller but still significant scale when Romanow defeated Devine. But it didn’t happen (at least, not yet).

So what’s up? Who has Brad Wall become as he grows in office and achieves national status as a stand up premier of Saskatchewan?

I mean, let’s face it; the Harper government was on the verge of approving the potash takeover (it is, after all, the way of the world in global capitalism), but Wall’s high profile and unapologetically aggressive campaign stopped Harper in his tracks. With Wall’s growing national status and broad public support in Saskatchewan, memories of Danny Williams’ “anybody but a Harper Tory” campaign during the last federal election were doubtless uppermost in the prime minister’s mind. Not a single Tory was elected in Newfoundland and Labrador. There was no stomach for a repeat which might jeopardize the federal Tory stranglehold on Saskatchewan’s seats in the House of Commons.

This is a new Brad Wall, hardly reminiscent of his lapdog devotion to Harper just after Wall’s elevation to premier. Brad Wall, as Harper knows, has become a political force to be reckoned with.

And Wall knows it and is becoming comfortable in the role.

Confusion about the new Brad Wall is not just afflicting the usual suspects, the political commentators and pundits, but has, the rumours go, reached deep into his own party. The hard right of the Saskatchewan Party — including some big donors and some prominent business interests — is not very happy. There are moans and groans about when Wall is going to deliver to his “natural” allies. But given his popularity, and the fact that his re-election is a near certainty, Wall is presently immune from serious internal challenges.

In fairness to Wall, he has not taken a sudden left turn, far from it. But he has refused to become an ideological puppet of the hard right, and insists on taking his role as premier with considerable seriousness. As an increasingly pragmatic professional career politician, Wall knows he must be seen as a defender of the public interest and a devotee of good government. He came to power in an era of a dominant right-wing national political consensus, hence the ideological polarization — which immediately occurred between Thatcher’s Liberals and Lloyd’s CCF/NDP, and between Devine’s Tories and Blakeney’s NDP — is absent from Saskatchewan politics.

Let us not forget that there is a new neoliberal consensus among all parties, including the provincial NDP. The Romanow and Calvert NDP governments pretty much completed the sell-off of public interest in potash and other resources. Those governments also downsized the welfare system and were not particularly pro-labour. They were almost as open for business as Devine. And under current leader Dwain Lingenfelter, the NDP’s position as defender of neoliberal ideological hegemony is assured.

As for labour, the labour movement itself has given Wall a free ride. Other than tough talk and empty threats of general strikes, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour has been unable or unwilling to do the tough organizing necessary to pull off a political response to Wall’s laws. Solidarity among unions has not been built up. A big fight-back fund has not been accumulated. None of the big unions is presently willing to take the lead on a major public sector strike which defies the new laws.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Brad Wall is no Ross Thatcher, nor is he a clone of Grant Devine, having quickly outgrown his mentor when he first came to Regina as a lowly ministerial assistant.

Brad Wall wants a significant place in the province’s political history. Ross Thatcher and Grant Devine have both become negative footnotes in a political history dominated by the “natural government party” since 1944, the CCF/NDP. Both Thatcher and Devine were limited to two terms and both left office discredited and widely loathed. Sighs of relief were almost universally audible when the tried and trusted CCF/NDP returned to power.

The only way Wall can achieve a significant place in the province’s political history — rather than a footnote as a brief episode in the CCF/NDP’s ongoing domination — is to win at least a third consecutive term. His second term is pretty much assured and, with the NDP stumbling into this election with Lingenfelter as leader, Wall has a good shot at a third.

But real history will be made by Wall if he can win as many elections as Tommy Douglas. Douglas won five consecutive elections from 1944 to 1960, establishing the CCF/NDP as the province’s “natural governing party.” There lies the direction of Wall’s ambition — to win a third term and then to go for the fourth and fifth.

But a third would make history on its own.

On the other hand, Wall’s success in Saskatchewan may lead to the temptations of federal office. But few premiers are eager to trade governing a province for a mere seat in the House of Commons. At least not until they retire with dignity — which usually means undefeated.

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