Hey Brad Wall: Heavy hangs the head that sells a Crown

Editorial | by Stephen Whitworth

It looks like the 2007 NDP was right: the Saskatchewan Party is a pack of pro-privatization conservatives in sheep’s clothing, after all.

At least, that’s what the Sask. Party government’s recent actions suggest.

In the 2007 election that launched the Sask. Party to three-terms of total political domination, Lorne Calvert’s NDP memorably portrayed the Sask. Party under charismatic leader Brad Wall as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”-style gang secretly scheming to privatize health care services and sell Saskatchewan’s Crown corporations.

As you may recall, a series of badly-designed NDP ads featured a friendly-looking wolf badly photoshopped onto a sheep’s body. Unsurprisingly, this failed to convince voters to reject the well-spoken, likeable Wall.

Why did the NDP fight a 21st-century election with a folksy old metaphor? And why in Dog’s name did it use a cute wolf? What was the NDP trying to say? “Don’t vote for the Sask. Party! Just look at them! They’re adorable!” Not exactly a winning message.

For all that, it looks like the tired old NDP of 2007 was right. “The truth is that the wolf actually did eat grandma at the end of the day,” then-MLA Clay Serby told the CBC during the election.

So, grandma, the light’s low in the sky. Are you feeling a little gnawed?

Bill 40: Sensible Or Sketchy-Ass?

After vociferously denying any plans to sell off Saskatchewan crowns like SaskTel during the April 2016 provincial election, the Sask. Party government recently passed Bill 40.

Bill 40 does an end-run around NDP anti-privatization legislation by allowing government to sell up to 49 per cent of a Crown corporation.

Brad Wall’s government couches potential sales in terms like “partnership” and “investment”, while critics see it as a step towards ruthlessly privatizing a public asset.

I’m with the critics: I think the Sask. Party government’s goal is to unload SaskTel (and SGI, and maybe more Crowns). I think it has always wanted to, because that’s just basic conservatism: governments should be small, they don’t belong in business, yada yada yada.

I mean, I could be wrong. I don’t doubt that Wall’s government enjoys SaskTel profits. But now, with the economy tanking, I think it sees a chance to make a short-term buck and reduce the red ink gushing from the budget while taking a step toward a long-term goal.

It’s consistent with their “spend the savings” approach to budgeting.

And if the (partial-for-now, eventually total) sale of a profitable asset makes it harder for future, non-Sask. Party governments to fund popular social programs? So much the better.

In a recent Leader-Post column, Murray Mandryk called Saskatchewan’s privatization debate “ever-irrational”. I can see how the discussion would drive a political pundit bananas: it brings out the monkeys. One comment under the article accuses Mandryk of idolizing Brad Wall. Pfft, as if.

That said, I lived in Winnipeg when Premier Gary Filmon’s PC government privatized Manitoba’s provincial phone company. And if I sound like I’m jumping to “ever-irrational” conclusions about the Sask. Party’s intentions, it’s only because a lot of what I’m seeing now looks familiar.

Throughout the spring 1995 election, Manitoba’s NDP and unions accused Filmon of plotting to sell the Manitoba Telephone System, which the premier vociferously denied. After Filmon’s re-election, however, he changed his tune.

First, his government broke MTS into four parts while denying the restructuring was a precursor to a sale.

Then, in 1996, the PCs introduced legislation to privatize MTS — legislation the majority government passed despite vociferous (word of the day!) opposition.

MTS was sold — at less than market value, according to the CRTC.

And Gary Filmon? His party was defeated in the 1999 provincial election and he stepped down. It worked out all right for him, though. In 2003 Filmon took a seat on the now-privatized MTS board, where he remained until 2015.

A 2015 column in the Winnipeg Free Press by Toby Sanger says Filmon made $1.4 million from that gig. Not bad!

The High Price Of Privatization

Would selling SaskTel suck?

My Magic Eightball says “you may rely on it.”

The first problem with selling SaskTel is that everyone’s phone bills will go up. That’s a guarantee. Crown corporations exist to provide services first and profits second.  Private companies exist for shareholders, and need the biggest possible profits.

Even if your phone service isn’t provided by SaskTel, our publicly owned telecom disciplines the market. No SaskTel, less competition. Pricey-hikey.

The next problem: the permanent loss of a valuable, revenue-generating public asset. As Murray Mandryk points out in a July 2016 column, SaskTel made nearly $98 million in 2015. What voter wants to share profits like that with a “partner”, let alone give it up for a one-time deal?

Then there’s the matter of jobs. SaskTel employs 4,000 people at fair wages. When the Filmon government sold MTS, the company downsized, torching something in the ballpark of 1,400 jobs.

Now, it might be fair (if appalling) to say “so what? I don’t care if SaskTel dumps 1,400 salaries. It doesn’t affect me.” The thing is, those soon-to-be-laid-off people pay taxes that build the roads we drive on, the hospitals we get healthy in and the schools we send our children to.

What’s more, people with good jobs spend more money at local shops, eat at local restaurants and drink at local bars. Out of province shareholders do not.

I like seeing my local economy supported, and SaskTel does that.

The bottom line is that the Saskatchewan Party government should hang up the phone on any negotiations to sell SaskTel. The benefits of keeping the Crown outweigh the benefits of selling it.

Unless, that is, someone’s hoping for a cushy and lucrative post-political career with a privatized telecom. ❧