Wednesday, June 14, 2017

$21,932.61

Source: CJME News: Saskatchewan Health Authority Board Members Named

What's this? Two blog posts in a row? While you try to get over the shock of such rapid posting, allow me to fill you into the somewhat cryptic number you find in the title of the post.

Earlier today, the Saskatchewan Government announced the board members for the soon to be amalgamated Health Region of Saskatchewan (name pending). The ten person list encompassed as the minister says:

"...a range of professional backgrounds, including governance, accounting, medicine, law, education and business." - Health Minister Jim Reiter.

But, a range of background and a future working together is not the only thing many of the new board members have in common. A little over half, that's 6 people for you playing the home game, have made contributions to the Saskatchewan Party over the last ten years.

If you don't believe me, feel free to head on over to the Elections Saskatchewan Website and check out the financial returns that parties are required to file. The returns go as far back as 2006, with a PDF file for each party. Sadly, the PDFs are non-searchable; meaning you can't just type in a name and see if it pops up...So, for the last few hours, I've been combing through eleven year's worth of financial returns.

As such, it's entirely possibly my tired eyes missed a name or two as I scoured through the list. Also, worth noting, is that these lists really only list "bigger" donors. If a person didn't contribute more than $250 in a fiscal year, their name won't appear in the return. This is also true for cash donations of under $20 made in person; which, as far as I know, are still allowed to be made without any need for paperwork on the party's side.

So, all of this information is what I consider to be the "searchable" donations. There's also the spouse and children factor. In the case of one board member, I was able to identify their spouse's name and as such, have included their donations in this total. Before you cry foul, let me explain: There are years in the records where both contributed separate amounts under $1,000; and then are years where only the spouse contributed an amount over $1,000. As such, in my opinion, it seems likely that those years the contribution was made just under one name, and I feel justified in including it in my tally.

The reason I am including these "exceptions and rules", is because it's worth keeping that in mind when we have a board member who's name doesn't appear on financial returns. Just because they don't appear, doesn't mean they didn't make a donation to the Saskatchewan Party...It may just have been a small enough donation not to end up in the report. Of note, the inverse can also be true; they may not have actually donated.

Since I can't say beyond a shadow of doubt that they did or didn't, it neither condemns nor exonerates them.

Now, let's get to the meat and potatoes of it; the following newly announced board members have made at least one contribution to the Saskatchewan Party since 2006:
  • R.W. (Dick) Carter, Chairperson
  • Grant Kook, Vice-Chair
  • Brenda Abrametz (and spouse)
  • Robert Pletch
  • Donald Rae
  • Tom Zurowski
These six people, since 2006, have contributed $21,932.61 to the Saskatchewan Party; hence the title of this post. Again, this is for the donations that can actually be tracked through the financial return. This can't account for smaller donations, especially smaller cash donations made in person at campaign or constituency events; nor does it account for contributions from spouses or children whom I could not link directly to the indicated board member. I mention this specifically, as a person who may be Mr. Carter's spouse appears in every return from 2017 - 2006, and would significantly increase the amount donated from the Carter family to the Sask Party over this time period. But, given that I cannot 100% confirm that spousal status, I'm leaving it out of our totals for now.

Of particular note, it is worth noting that nearly half (48%) of the total amount of monies donated by these 6 board members comes from a SINGLE person: Robert Pletch, who since 2006, has donated a whopping $10,447.10 to the Saskatchewan Party.

With no exception, each of the 6 board members listed have above have donated over $1,000 to the Saskatchewan Party since 2006.

The fact of the matter is: There are already a number of growing concerns over the switch to moving to a single health region; especially when considering the pratfalls that other areas of Canada have experienced while making such a move.

The Saskatchewan Government had to, let me emphasize that, HAD TO ensure that this process was undertaken in such a manner that the groundwork had to be beyond reproach. The first way of doing that: an act of good faith by not stacking the health board with Party Toadies. Instead, what we've gotten, is the complete opposite.

Even if the remaining unaccounted for 4 boards have never made a contribution to the Saskatchewan Party, as the financial records could suggest, their voices would still be easily drowned out by the 6 members who have provided over $20,000 in donations over 11 years.

By not even being able to start the process in good faith, Reiter and Wall have effectively started this process by poisoning the well. While the board members may have sterling reputations, and a few even have health board experience in the existing boards, this is completely undercut by the fact that the majority of them have ties to the sitting the government.

One act of good faith was all that was needed to suggest that the Wall Government wasn't going to make this process political or open to pratfalls...He couldn't even provide that.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Latest on Leadership

SOURCE: CBC News: Trent Wotherspoon Resigning as NDP Interim Leader, Considering Run for Permanent Party Leadership

Given that we took a moment to discuss Ryan Meili's entry into the Saskatchewan NDP Leadership Race, it seems only right that we take a moment to consider Trent Wotherspoon's precursor to potentially entering the race himself.

I'll admit, I was surprised this afternoon when I saw the headlines that Trent was stepping down as interim leader and would be considering entering the race to become the next full-time leader of the Saskatchewan NDP. Given his previous answers on ruling out a leadership run, it seemed like mostly a done deal that Trent was happy to serve in a short-time capacity for the party.

However, one can hardly blame Trent for stepping back to fully consider his options. After all, the NDP is in a very different place at the moment. For the first time in a long time, at least the first time since forming government in 2007, the NDP is polling ahead of the ruling Saskatchewan Party with voters. Wall's seemingly invincible armour has been chipped, if not cracked, and Wall's own political future is in question.

Those sorts of shifts alone warrant a re-examination of decisions made prior to such events occurring. So, while I'm sure there may be some who are apprehensive about Trent potentially reversing course, I'd say the thought is entirely justified.

Which brings the next point: There has been a considerable amount of grassroot support for Trent to take a stab at the full-time leadership; from the standard "Draft Trent Wotherspoon" mumblings on various social media sites to just general statements from rank and file members discussing the leadership. Given Wall and the SK Party's shift, and own pressures from within the party to consider running, it's not surprising that Trent is taking the thought seriously.

At this point, at least in my opinion, it seems unlikely that Trent won't enter the race, which means at the very least we will see a contest between Meili and Wotherspoon. As mentioned in my previous post, this is good for the party on the long term. Meili and Wotherspoon are arguably the two "heaviest hitters" that could have entered the race; so, at the very least, it will ensure that we have that conversation leadership race I talked about as opposed to a coronation.

Again, to draw on the last post, I would say that the next leader needs to be ready to lead a province that might be weaker than expected. So, while it will be nice to have a conversation about what kinds of new social programs or spending can be expected under an NDP Government in 2020; I certainly hope there is lots of consideration given to the "darker" timeline option of finding ourselves in a repeat of 1993, post-Wall.

Now, as we fleshed out a few areas where Meili is like to take some shots from the Saskatchewan Party, we should likely consider what Trent needs to be prepared for should he end up winning the leadership.

The easiest target is previous leadership associations; much like Wall has tried to smear Meili with the Carbon Tax, I would expect the SK Party to look back to "Aboriginal Resource Revenue Sharing" pitched by the NDP in 2011.  That attack was a popular favourite against both Lingenfelter and Broten; and it wouldn't surprise me to see it dusted off again should Trent become leader.

I would imagine it would have the new spin of "Resource revenues are down, so why would we split what little we are getting now"; as such, this should be a question that Trent and his team are able to answer, even if there is no plan to bring back Resource Revenue Sharing as a policy for 2020.

The other angle, which Trent and team need to consider, is what happens if Wall does indeed resign prior to 2020.

Regardless of whether a long-time SK Party Cabinet Member takes over or some wild-card emerges, I imagine there will be the continued messaging of Trent being part of the 'old guard NDP' and how a province under his leadership would be a "step back" for the province. Now, I have no doubt that policies brought forth during the leadership race will help combat this talking point, but I pause because I imagine that this will be an issue that is also brought up during the leadership race.

While we're likely to see the "violent agreement" that often exists in NDP Leadership races at all levels, I imagine that Trent will take some flak for being a longer serving caucus member. While he can easily spin this into highlighting experience in the legislature, there is the very real potential that we will see another "Old Guard/New Wave" problem that has permeated the last few leadership races. And it would be a disservice to the past to not learn from previous aftermaths, and Trent and any other candidate not named Ryan Meili needs to be prepared to address how they will foster party unity.

While I think it's unfair to consider Trent "Old Guard" simply because he's had a few terms in the legislature, I do believe that it will be brought up in that manner that makes it sound like it's a bad thing. The goal, however, is to make sure that we as a party are able to make sure that this division does not inflict a wound during the leadership contest; a wound that will eventually fester and become infected during a general election, and that will present an easy target for the SK Party to hone in on.

Not that my call to action means much, but I would certainly encourage our leadership candidates to abandon the whole "Old Guard/New Wave" mentality; it does us all no good when we foster an Us/Them mentality within our own party. Regardless of what happens in the leadership race, we should be fostering an inclusive community where progressive people of the province feel at home and valued. Failure to do so will only ensure more ammunition for the SK Party during the next general election, and our goal should be to deny them any kind of "advantage" we can.

With Trent likely to enter the race, and Meili already confirmed to be in it, I think the pool of potential contenders continues to narrow. I don't know whether or not any one else out there is considering weighing into a race that now has the two perceived front runners involved; but of course, I could always be wrong and someone else may very well step forward. If someone does, I'll update accordingly and hopefully be able to provide some early insight.

In closing this post, I would like to again impress the importance to ensuring that whatever the outcome of this race that we ensure the NDP is ready to govern for 2020. While it's still a long way away, and poll numbers can change, the party needs to be ready. And we need to be sure that we're prepared to be surprised, for good or for ill, with what state of finances we are given.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

On Leadership and Definitions

SOURCE: CBC News: Ryan Meili Seeks NDP Leadership for 3rd Time

By this point in time, most of you have likely heard the news that Ryan Meili has announced his intention to seek the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP for the third time. Meili, who has had two strong second place finishes in prior leadership contests, is thus far the only announced candidate in the leadership contest; and arguably, regardless of who may come next, likely considered to be the frontrunner.

With Ryan thus far being the only announced candidate, I suppose we'll be spending the rest of this post looking at some things that I hope Ryan and his team have already begun to work on. After all, there's more at stake here than just the NDP Leadership.

I'd like to preface this post, before we launch into the main arguments and discussion, that this post may come across perhaps as prodding on my end. It may very well be, but hopefully, it's a good kind of prodding that will help ensure that the party comes out stronger on the other side of this leadership contest.

Let's start with the obvious point: The Sask Party is very much prepared for the Meili-led NDP. Brad Wall has, on several occasions, referred to Meili (since his election in Saskatoon-Meewasin) as "the future leader of the NDP" or some variation thereof; so we need to ask ourselves what exactly that means for the first few days of a Meili led NDP.

One of the things that has ham-stringed the last few provincial NDP leaders was a failure to define themselves out of the gate; by leaving such an opening, Wall and the Sask Party were able to define the new leaders and set the tone and tenor of their tenure. And regardless of what developments came later, both Lingenfelter and Broten suffered from these initial perceptions perpetuated by the Sask Party and Wall and his front bench.

Since his first run against Dwain Lingenfelter, Ryan Meili has likely been a "person of interest" for Saskatchewan Party partisans. They have had years to craft what messaging they can, or would, use in the event Ryan became party leader. As such, it's very likely that from the first second after a Meili win, the Sask Party would be ready to launch every salvo they have stored from those years to do what they did to Lingenfelter and Broten so well: Define him before he defines himself.

As such, Meili and his team need to be ready for this. Wall's chattering of acknowledging Meili as the front-runner in the NDP race more or less shows that they will be ready from day one to start their campaign against him. With that in mind, Team Meili needs to ensure that they're laying groundwork not just to win the NDP Leadership, but also getting ready from Day One to ensure that they are the ones who define Ryan to Saskatchewan voters.

There will be precious little time after a Meili win to achieve this, so I do certainly hope that it is something that is being discussed within his organizational structure.

That's not to say that this same kind of tactic would not be employed against a 'dark horse' candidate who pulls out a surprise win over Meili; as the Sask Party is likely to continue on this path as it's worked well at kneecapping two previous leaders. But for Meili, having been in the public eye longer, the Sask Party will certainly be more ready for him.

We certainly saw a taste of this during the Meewasin by-election, wherein the Sask Party ran ads tying Ryan to Trudeau's Carbon Tax. While it seems like that argument landed with a thud, given Ryan's victory in Meewasin, it's likely just the tip of the iceberg on potential "definition" campaigns they could run.

Again, I point all of this out in the hopes of acknowledging that should Ryan end up winning the leadership next May, he and his team must be ready for this. The campaign to come isn't just about securing the NDP Leadership, but also about securing Ryan's public image to ensure that it is defined by him and his actions, and not by political tactics of the Sask Party.

Which brings us to the next point, the need for this leadership race to be a conversation and not a coronation.

Ryan's entry into the race is likely to scare off some of the 'smaller fish' candidates who were perhaps entertaining a leadership run. The problem here, in my opinion, is that the party is in such a place at the moment that a singular leadership race poses many problems.

While the party could maintain that it's the membership uniting behind Ryan, and seeing his vision as the best for the province; we come back to opposition definition. If Ryan is the only candidate, the Sask Party will undoubtedly use that as an attack in several ways. From arguing that the party is in such dire straights it could only find one person wanting to lead it to painting the party as being completely taken over by so-and-so wing of the party.

Again, definition is important; and a healthy leadership competition is a part of that definition. As such, it's important to ensure that many voices are active and engaged during the leadership race. Anything else than that is ceding ground to the Sask Party attack ad machine; and that's a dangerous ground to cede.

Which brings me to the next point: Regardless of whether it's Ryan, or someone else, the next leader has to be ready to deal with two realities.

The first reality is the one where the NDP is elected in 2020, and the leader is able to begin to implement the policies and vision that they were elected on.

The second reality is the one where the NDP is elected in 2020, and we find ourselves in a repeat of the early 1990s: The cupboards barer than the previous government admitted to, and the newly elected government stymied into the role of a caretaker rather than a visionary.

As much as it may be pessimistic, we need to have an open and frank discussion of what happens in 2020 if the party finds itself in power and the financial burden of the province in a much darker hole than Wall and his outgoing cabinet revealed. Call it the difference between political idealism and practical realism; we need to have a platform that reflects lofty goals, but we also need to have a dose of realism on what the party, and the leader, will do if we find Saskatchewan in more dire straights than we think.

The Sask Party has made a living off of citing all the "Closures" and "deferred building" under the NDP of the 1990s; ignoring the reasons why that all occurred...And we need to ensure that any future leaders of the NDP are not caught in the same trap again.

It's not fun to perhaps have to consider what happens if you're elected and have to keep the province's head above water, rather than enacting your pet policies; but again, if we want to avoid opposition definition years down the line, we need to be prepared for both scenarios.

And again, hopefully Ryan and his team (and all potential leadership candidates and their teams), have reflected on this possibility and are able to address what the party and the province would look like in this scenario with them in control. Otherwise, we are likely to see the same arguments Wall uses today return in ten to fifteen year's time as the new reason to shun the NDP.

Effectively, as much as this leadership race will be about laying out a new vision for the party and the province, it must also be a race to acknowledge difficult truths and possibilities of what the next government might have to deal with. And I hope that that is something that has been deeply pondered by every candidate considering running.

Monday, May 8, 2017

You Get a P3! And You Get a P3! Everybody Gets a P3!

SOURCE: CBC News: Sask. Spending Millions on Companies that Bid on Work and Lose
SOURCE: Leader Post: Sask. Government Gave $5.6 Million to Companies for Failed P3 Bids

When it was announced earlier today that Brad Wall had sent off another prodding letter to the Federal Government to saber-rattle over the looming Carbon Tax; my first though was what other information could possibly be coming out later today that Wall wanted to distract from.

At first, there was a strong contender in the information that Saskatoon was selected as the new headquarters for Saskatchewan's amalgamated health region; foresaking Regina and cities such as Moose Jaw and Prince Albert that seemed to pose interest in hosting the new HQ. (We'll probably talk more about this at another point.)

But what seemed more in need of a diversion was the story of millions of dollars being paid out to companies who produced failing bids on some of the province's P3 projects.

In the 2015 - 2016 Budgetary year, as cited in the Leader Post source, the province paid out $5.6 million to companies who were not selected as the successful bidder in the project. I'm going to expand on that point, and it's worth noting, that in the Request for Proposal (RFP) that went out for these P3 projects a section was included for the payment of 'honorariums' to unsuccessful bidders.

In the case of the Swift Current Care Home, the honorarium was marked at $300,000; of which two payments were made to unsuccessful bidders for a total of $600,000.

For the Regina Bypass, the honorarium was $1.5 million; of which three payments were made for a total of $4.5 million.

For the North Battleford Hospital, the honorarium was $500,000; of which two payments were made for a total of $1 million.

That accounts for the $5.6 million paid out reported by the Leader Post. What's unaccounted for is any payments made as a result of any of the 18 P3 schools to be built in the province.

Project 1, which covers six schools in Regina, offers a honorarium of $300,000; with no reporting of whether any honorariums have been paid out, or how many. Project 2, which covers twelve schools in Saskatoon, Martensville, and Warman, offers a honorarium of $500,000; with no reporting of whether any honorariums have been paid out, or how many.

Needless to say, Brad Wall and Minister for SaskBuilds Gordon Wyant have been quick to defend the use of these honorarium payments to unsuccessful bidders. Both have held up the defence of "Standard Practice", when it comes to these payments

To be fair, they do seem to be telling the truth on that matter. A cursory Google search of P3 honorariums will show you several different jurisdictions throughout Canada that talk about the honorarium incentive. What's interesting, and unclear in Saskatchewan, is how the honorarium is determined.

For example, the Consulting Architects of Alberta have suggested the following formula for determining an appropriate honorarium:

Honorarium = (CAA suggested fee for basic services X 15%) X 75%

Now, that is just a suggested formula; but it at least provides a baseline for what should be a simple and public question: How are the honorarium for P3 bidders determined, and what percentage of return is there on an honorarium?

The worry, which invokes similarities to the plot of Mel Brooks' The Producers, is the concern that a company could make money off an unsuccessful bid. Regardless of that potential, I think there is a very valid concern in knowing the how the province is determining the level of reimbursement to an unsuccessful P3 bidder.

Wyant is on record, in the CBC article, stating that companies receive "about 30%" of the cost of the designs. What's unclear is whether this is standard, below average, or above average for the design work performed.

Further complicating things is that word "About". Does about 30% mean 29%? 28% 25%, generously rounded up? 31%? Without knowing more specifics about how the rate of honorariums are determined, we can't honestly say whether taxpayers are getting a good deal on these payments or if they're grossly inflated.

But there's a problem we haven't addressed yet; are design costs actually being paid prior to the bid?

As per the Consulting Architects of Alberta, again:
Design firms are often expected to perform design services for free or at heavily discounted rates; they are commonly expected to take on the risk of providing free services as their contribution to their team's pursuit of the project.
So, in Alberta at least (which let's be honest, often serves as operating model for a lot of stuff the Saskatchewan Party does...or at least, it did.) there is an expectation that design teams work on a project for either free or a heavily discounted rate of their normal service as "their part" of the risk in the project.
Which makes one worried that we're reimbursing design costs that didn't actually cost a thing. Again, images of Max Bialystock pop into one's brain, and concern that a corporation could use a P3 honorarium as a form of taxpayer funded subsidizing to avoid paying their own workers, or subcontractors, for work rendered.

Of course, I imagine most companies would hide behind "market interests" or "competitive reasons"  and other buzzwords to forego explaining the direct cost of their design services on a P3 RFP bid. So, we'll just have to go with Wyant's "About 30%" and try to determine whether or not that's a good value or a fleecing on our own.

Which brings us to the next defence, uttered by Wall and Wyant, that honorariums are common in both P3 models and in the traditional "design-build" model (how government generally builds infrastructure projects). Add in the additional, "The NDP paid out honorariums when they were in office" defence, and you have the standard SK Party defence uttered since 2007.

So, is there any truth to those statements?

Right now, not a lot. There is a case of a skyscraper being built in Alberta in 2004, under a traditional design-build method, where a $500,000 honorarium was paid out to two unsuccessful bidders. In that case, the payout was considered unprecedented; and further Googling suggests that honorarium for design-build projects are outliers, not the norm. As opposed to P3s, which seem to require the honorarium to move forward.
I'm failing to find any such example in Saskatchewan; nor am I finding any from when the NDP was in power. I welcome readers who have such information to fire it into the comments section, with links please, so we can update this section as needed. 

As such, on the face of it, this defence doesn't hold water.

Which brings us to Wyant's last defence of the honorarium payment. Wyant admitted that without the honorarium, it's possible there would be no interest in the bid. 

The problem is, there's historical record that rejects this. We cast our eyes, yet again, on Alberta and their experiment with P3 schools. Alberta's PC Government originally made a P3 deal for 19 new schools, with a $750,000 honorarium, before the government scrapped the program. And the reason they scrapped it: Lack of interest from private business.

Saskatchewan's school honorariums, as noted above, ranged from $200,000 to $450,000 below the Alberta one; for one less school overall. Which throws some cold water on the notion that the honorarium produces incentive; if Alberta's more generous offer only attracted one bidder, how did Saskatchewan get away with less incentive for a similar project?

Which brings us to a fundamental question that must be asked: If incentives are needed to convince businesses to sign on to P3 bids, and these incentives are nothing more than taxpayer provided subsidy, why are we pursuing this model?

The best answer to this question, and one I sadly can't provide, is to compare interest and responses to RFPs under the design-build model compared to the P3 model. When the government handled the design work did we have more contractors bid on the project?

Part of me says, without evidence, that it's possible; after all, smaller firms would be able to bid on a project if they had the capacity to build a project but perhaps not the capacity needed to completely design one from scratch.

A defence of P3s that I've heard bandied about by SK Party supporters is that government guidelines require so much work to be done up front on an RFP that some form of compensation is needed for the unsuccessful bidders. And while there is some merit in that argument, the problem is it is undercut by a clearer answer: traditional design-build projects would remove that upfront design cost and need for a honorarium to unsuccessful bidders.

So, we can have a system where the design work is handled and smaller firms are capable of bidding on a project...OR we can have a system where only larger companies, or a hodge-podge mixture of several, can afford to put up upfront costs but want some form of reimbursement regardless of how the competition pans out.

When it's phrased like that, at least to me, the answer seems fairly obvious as to which of those two systems is better over the long haul.

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't talk about the notion of standard operating practice (SOP). SOP is often cited as the reason why something was done the way it was done. As mentioned above, SOP is for honorariums to be paid out to unsuccessful bidders in a P3 model. From BC to Nova Scotia, P3 projects have used honorariums.

But the question, and one that must be asked in light of the most recent budget, is what does the SOP cost us in the long haul?

As mentioned previously, this government has made a myriad of cuts to various programs in the name of austerity and chase of a balanced budget. What could that $5.6 million paid out to unsuccessful bidders have paid for in other aspects of the budget?

How many hearing aids for kids could that have bought? How many graduates could have gone through NORTEP/NORPAC? How many funerals for the homeless could have been paid for, to provide one last shred of dignity in death? How many EAs could that have put into classrooms?

There's dozens of more examples, but I think that gets the point across. We shouldn't accept "Standard Operating Practice" as an answer for why this money was spent in the manner it was. How a government spends money in our name highlights the priorities that they are pursuing. Regardless of what is said, or not said, in an election; a budget shows you the true colours of those in charge.

And what we've seen, time and time again, is that the average Saskatchewan resident is nothing more than a piggy-bank to be exploited at every turn to ensure an effective transfer of wealth from us to corporate interests. And while that may sound like a teenager rattling off a tenant of Communism, and it does, in this case it is a very real and fundamental truth.

Follow the money and you'll see that our current government has always gone out of their way to ensure corporations were well looked after in this province; from these SOP honorariums to corporate tax cuts in a time of austerity to an idea to clean-up oil wells so companies wouldn't have to...

Wall and Co. have never turned away a thought on how they can benefit business. Conversely, they haven't seen a way to drag more out of the average citizen (resistance to minimum wage increases, SAID funding slashes, increases in cost of living [utilities, university education, etc], etc.)

Look at who Wall has stood up for and gone to bat for the most over the last decade. I'll give you a hint: It wasn't the general public.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Long Gone to Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan, we need to talk.

There is a very real problem in this province, regardless of whether or not you want to admit it, but we need to talk about it. To put our fingers in our ears and sing our lungs out isn't going to do anyone any good; instead, we need to admit a pure and simple truth: Saskatchewan, we've been had.

Now, this is not an easy concept for anyone to admit. Humans, by our very nature, are a prideful bunch. It takes a special kind of person to stand back and admit "I made a mistake" or "I trusted someone I shouldn't have." While buyer's remorse is a concept many of us are familiar with, especially those who watch the Home Shopping Channel, when it comes to the things that matter we are slow to admit when mistakes have been made.

Instead, as is often the case, deflection and denial become the order of the day. It's easier to convince ourselves of a happy lie than it is to accept a painful truth. But we, as a province, need to step back and open our eyes.

Irreparable harm is being done to our province. I'm going to say that again: Irreparable harm is being done to our province. Sadly, this is not harm being committed by an external party intent on our harm, but it is harm being done by those we expected to represent us. By those who, quite literally, draped themselves in the colours and symbols of our province and told us that they were here for us.

Despite the analogy being overused to the point of useless cliché; a wolf in sheep's clothing fooled us. They filled the room with platitudes and banner waving; talked about the promise of a "new Saskatchewan", and basically made "Happy Days Are Here Again" the unofficial anthem of their new vision for our province.

To say a word against them was akin to blasphemy. Raise a valid concern? You were DOWN ON SASKATCHEWAN. Ask what happens when the traditional boom-bust cycle of resource revenue returns to the bust side of the pendulum? THAT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! DO YOU WANT TO SEE OUR PROVINCE FAIL?!

The problem, Saskatchewan, is that many of us allowed this behaviour to go unchecked. Instead of persisting, instead of demanding answers and a clear vision, we took the pablum that was offered and swallowed it down with a smile. We bought into the notion that somehow, this time, it was going to be different. That against all odds, what we were being told was true, "Next Year" had finally arrived in Saskatchewan, and we were NEVER going back to before.

Sadly, as we are finding out on a daily basis, we are learning a very stubborn and harsh truth: The cycle of boom-and-bust continues, and despite all the protestations of one blustering Premier, the entire province is now paying the price for an extreme lack of vision. While other jurisdictions used the unprecedented highs of the oil and resource economy to save some of that wealth; Saskatchewan spent like a drunk sailor on shore leave.

In 2009, when the economic downturn really started to peak globally, questions began to be asked about how the government would avoid being hit with this new economic reality. Yet again, instead of any tangible plan or explanation, we were given platitudes and pipe dreams (which is a great band name, by the way).

Yet again, critics were "Down on Saskatchewan" or "Down on the Promise of Saskatchewan", for asking "What happens if the economy goes south for us?"It was a question that should have been given serious thought and reflection; but it is painfully clear that it was never in the forefront of the minds of those who lead our province.

At no point was this more painfully clear than in 2014, when our illustrious Premier commissioned Peter MacKinnon to look at the development of a Saskatchewan Futures Fund. MacKinnon's report called for the immediate establishment of such a fund; Wall's response: "Now is not the time."

In the same time that Wall decided not to save any of Saskatchewan's resource revenue, he did apparently decide that it was indeed the time to:
Saskatchewan, just look at some of the dollar figures quoted and cited in the links above; now consider those priorities at a time when Saskatchewan's economy was riding high. I won't fault the Wall Government for trying new things; sometimes, the new thing works, sometimes it doesn't. As a popular example, we'll cite SpudCo, since the right-of-centre people in the province will never let us forget that one. So, yes, on occasion governments make mistakes and or ideas don't pan out as planned.

The problem, however, is when a government fails to learn from their mistakes. And year after year, we have seen a hubris and ego from the Wall Government that shows that they are not a group who learn from their mistakes.

Instead of owning up to their shortcomings and accepting their lumps, the Wall Government has never seen a scapegoat they haven't found a way to hoist up and condemn.

Complaints about rural health care? The NDP is to blame from when they were in government over a decade ago! Complaints about road infrastructure? The NDP paid less for roads than we have! Economy collapsing? Resource revenue globally...PLUS for good measure, we'll blame the NDP in Alberta!

There's an old phrase, that I'm going to clean up to use on the blog: If you run into a jerk in the morning, you ran into a jerk in the morning. If you run into jerks all day, you're the jerk. Passing the buck only works for so long, if it works at all, and instead what we've seen is a government that is very slow to admit mistakes.

We saw one of those once in a blue moon instances recently with the decision to reverse cuts to library funding. And that was a huge victory for people who got active, wrote letters, showed up to protest events, and held onto issue like a pitbull with a steak bone.

Of course, the storm cloud on the horizon on this issue, is that the funding restored is equal to last year's funding. No increases, no decreases. Which makes the possibility of a decrease in the next budget, but perhaps not one as substantial as the cut proposed this most recent budget, all the more likely.

And then there's the cuts that are still happening.

The loss of STC. Education claw backs, despite an increase to mill rates for education. The cutting of funeral services for homeless individuals in the province. Continued cut after cut to people on programs like SAID in the province; with the announcement today that a $20 travel voucher credit is being replaced by a "mileage" system, requiring out of pocket expenses first. This was a project that cost $240 a year for a single person, with the government saying the change would affect 4,200 people.

That's a grand total of $1,008,000 a year. A literal drop in the bucket, when you consider the size of the provincial deficit.

At the same time, among all these cuts, is a generous cut of 1% to the corporate tax rate in the province.  At the same time, a 1% increase to the PST; while also removing previously exempted items from their exemptions, meaning some items effectively saw a 6% tax increase.

Also among all these cuts: Bill 40, which we've talked about before, and the potential sale of up to 49% of our Crowns to "private partnerships".

Not even a week after Bill 40 passed, it was confirmed that SaskTel Minister Dustin Duncan had talked to a representative from a large telecommunications company...And that SaskTel had done "preliminary" work on what a 49% sale would look like. Never mind that on Wednesday, before Bill 40 passed, Duncan declared in the Legislature that no work had been done. Come Thursday, and the bill being passed, Duncan's tune changed and he said that he had misspoke.

I want to emphasis this, because it's very important: The Minister responsible for SaskTel stood up in the Legislature, the public's House, and unequivocally denied any work being done by SaskTel on a potential sale...Only to correct the record AFTER the bill had been passed. That is DANGEROUSLY close to a Minister misleading the Legislature; which believe it or not, is actually a very serious issue.

Granted, until we know otherwise, we have to take Duncan at his word and that it was an oversight not a malicious attempt to mislead the Legislature. But the timing sure is suspect, and it points to yet another stronger case for the hubris and ego that permeates throughout our provincial government.

Which brings me back to the conversation and the harsh truth we need to admit to ourselves.

Saskatchewan, Brad Wall and his government have not earned the right to treat this province in any manner in which they choose. Now, I can hear some of you saying, "But Scott, we elected them. They won an election."

And while they did indeed win an election, I have to ask: Where in their platform did they include any of this?

Where did they pledge to sell up to 49% of our Crowns and redefine the word "privatize" in order to do it? Where did they pledge to cruel, heartless and short-sighted cuts to some of the most vulnerable among us? Where did they pledge to restructure education in the province? Where did they pledge to raise the PST? Where did they pledge to cut the corporate tax rate by 1%? Where did they pledge to shut down STC? Where did they pledge to kill the grants-in-lieu to municipalities? Where did they pledge to do ANY of things they're doing now?

The fact of the matter is they didn't.

Their campaign platform from 2016 contained very few pledges:
  • Increase funding for children with Autism in the province (Cancelled, by the way, at least for the foreseeable future)
  • Create an"Innovation Patent Box" system in Saskatchewan. (They did do this...Huh, it's almost like they'll always do stuff for companies but not families, the poor, or average citizens...)
  • Rebuild the Rainy-Day Fund...ONCE oil is north of $75 again. (At the time of typing this, WTI Crude was pegged at $44.44 USD; oh, and keep in mind that the 2017 - 2018 Budget numbers pegged WTI at $56.25...So we're only $11.81 shy on that.)
And those were most of the "big ticket" items. There was no talk of cuts, or coming austerity. In fact, the Saskatchewan Party spent a lot of time talking about "Not going back" to how things were under the NDP...And how resources were down, sure, but they were prepared and ready to meet the challenge.

Nevermind the fact that the Wall Government quashed budget numbers being released prior to the election. Nevermind that the NDP, quite accurately, were telling us to prepare for the $100-odd million surplus to be closer to a $1 billion plus deficit by the time the budget was revealed.

And this is a big problem.

In a democratic society, an election is supposed to be a contest of ideas. Politicians provide policy, talk about their plans, and let us know what they're going to do in our name for the next four years. But that didn't happen in 2016. The Saskatchewan Party campaigned with rose-tinted glasses, and told us all to look through them, rather than admit to any possible storm that could cost them the election.

We weren't told about cuts, we were told that our "economic diversification" had made Saskatchewan an island; that we would weather the storm and come through unscathed. That unlike other jurisdictions, -COUGH ALBERTA COUGH COUGH DAMNED NOTELY COUGH-, that we would be fine. That despite our financial outlook looking closer and closer to the darkest days of the Grant Devine years, that Saskatchewan was NEVER going back to before.

The fact of the matter, actually, is that despite all their talk of "Never Going Back", the Saskatchewan Party has managed to do exactly that.

In 1968, W. Ross Thatcher's re-elected Liberal Government launched an unannounced austerity program throughout the province. They raised taxes, cut government programs, and brought in fees on medical procedures. (2017: PST raised, check; government programs cut, check; medical fees: We'll count private MRI and CT expansion as a check here.) Thatcher's cuts took a lot of people, including members of his own caucus and cabinet, by surprise.

It's shockingly scary, actually, how valid this quote from John Russell Kowalchuk NDP MLA from Melville is today:

"They  just  couldn't  have  been  in  on  that  great  secret  Budget,  Mr.  Speaker,  and  of course  I  can  readily  understand  the  terrible  dilemma  they  were  in.  They  were  probably  thinking  as  to how they could face their constituents back home. How could they explain the abrupt change from boom to  bust?  How  could  they  wash  away  the  betrayal  of  their  supporters  who  had  believed  them?  Mr. Speaker,  never  in  the  history  of  Saskatchewan  have  the  people  been  betrayed  as  they  were  by  that Budget  presented  by  the  Provincial  Treasurer  on  that  black  Friday  of  March  1. Mr.  Speaker,  from  the pre-election  days  of  October  11,  from  the  big,  new  shiny  Saskatchewan  to  utter  decay,  ruin  and  grim austerity, is  a  lie  that  the  people  of  Saskatchewan  will  never  forget,  not  even  in  four  years time,  Mr. Speaker."

By 1971, Thatcher and his Liberals were resoundingly tossed from office; showing that, at least in 1971, Kowalchuk's vow that people would not forget was true. It's a warning perhaps Brad Wall and company should take to heart as well.

Saskatchewan, we have a problem, and it's indeed bigger than one Brad Wall. As you can see, we have a bad habit of falling into a very specific cycle in this province.

Here, to make it very simple, I've made a chart:

Seriously, we've been doing this song and dance since 1967; and it's time that we realize that we're stuck in a rut and need to get out of it. Saskatchewan, we have a problem, and it's been going on for decades. But rather than commiserate the past, let's focus on the here and now.

Today's problem is Brad Wall and his government. They had a chance to speak frankly to the people, it's called an election, and explain what they were going to do to our province. They lied by omission. It's like going in for open-heart surgery, and waking up to find that while the surgeon was operating they also decided to amputate one of your arms without consulting you or your spouse in the waiting room. Meanwhile, while you're preparing your malpractice lawsuit, the surgeon is claiming that they spotted a suspect looking growth or such on your arm two months ago and decided they'd fix it when you came in for surgery...It's just, they never told you at any point, despite knowing about it months ago.

We wouldn't tolerate a surgeon who made a decision on based on withheld information, so why would we tolerate it from our government?

I'm going to say this as plainly as I can: Brad Wall and his government have no mandate to be undertaking the cuts and austerity agenda that they are now passing. They had an opportunity to make a case for austerity to the electorate; they chose not to, and we know they made that decision purely based on electoral fortunes. After all, not many governments win elections on austerity agendas.

But we needed to have that conversation. We deserved to know that STC was gone under a re-elected Saskatchewan Party. We deserved to know that the PST would go up by 1%, and that some exemptions would disappear completely. WE, the people of Saskatchewan, are Brad Wall's boss. Him, and his entire government, are accountable to us.

It's not the other way around.

And that's where this gets very tricky. We're years away from an election, and Saskatchewan (like the rest of Canada) has no method of recall legislation. Like it or not, we're stuck with Wall and Co until 2020 at the latest. The problem, of course, is all the damage they can between then and now.

And that's why this blog post is the length that it is: We need to be vocal. We need to be active. We need to be ready to call out attention to EVERY little detail this government does in our name. We need to show everyone, regardless of political stripe, that the actions taken by our Government DO NOT represent our wishes.

We need to demand accountability.

I'll say this: If Brad Wall and his government wish to continue to push Saskatchewan down the path of austerity and cuts; the path of privatization of public services and our Crown Corporations; the path of completely transforming this province from the one we know and love to one whose form I can't imagine...Then you need to get permission from the people you claim to represent.

You need to take this callous, heartless, and deceitful budget from the legislature and turn it into an election platform. You need to let the people in on this decision, and let us decide whether this unannounced direction is where we want to see our province go.

If you truly believe this is the course the province must take, and I think you do, then you need to have enough common decency to let the people have a say. Simply running on platitudes and popularity (another great band name), while concealing what you would undertake just months later in our name lacks all decency and sincerity.

You've been privileged, and it is a privilege, to lead our province for a decade. Privilege comes with responsibility, which you have eschewed for political expediency. If you truly care about our province, if you truly want to "keep Saskatchewan strong", then make your full and open case to the people.

Put quite simply: Brad Wall must dissolve the legislature and ask for a new election. His party is lacking any mandate or credibility to undertake this austerity agenda. Let them face the people and pitch their plan, and let us decide whether this is what we want for our province.

Refuse this with the premonition uttered by Mr. Kowalchuk some 49 years ago:

"...from  the  big,  new  shiny  Saskatchewan  to  utter  decay,  ruin  and  grim austerity, is  a  lie  that  the  people  of  Saskatchewan  will  never  forget,  not  even  in  four  years time, Mr. Speaker."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Forget the Wall, We've Just Opened a Hell of a Door

Source: CBC News - Saskatchewan Government Passes Bill 40 Allowing Partial Sale of Crowns

Let's ignore the long absence, and just get right to it, shall we?

We've talked about Bill 40 before on the blog, and how the government was making overtures towards moving the goal line on what is and is not "privatization". There is a lot of be rehashed, which could just be gleaned from reading the old post, but let's do the cliff notes short version to make sure we're all on the same page:

  1. Saskatchewan law, under the Crown Corporations Public Ownership Act of 2004, which makes it such that a government cannot "bring into force" a bill that would privatize a Crown unless it occurs 90 days after the last election. (Nutshell: A government passes the law, has to campaign on it and be re-elected in order to actually privatize a Crown.)
  2. Wall's campaign in 2016 did not include any reference to selling off the Crowns; it was not an idea that was floated. As such, Wall cannot say that he fulfilled any aspect of the CCPO Act as mentioned above.
  3. Wall mused with a referendum as a potential out, but abandoned the idea in the face of overwhelming public resistance to it.
  4. Bill 40, which had the boring title of "an amendment to the Interpretation Act of 1995" was Wall's Hail Mary pass; in that the government would simply redefine privatization as a sale of more than 49% of a Crown. As such, as long as the province maintained 51% of the Crown's shares, it was not "privatized".
There, that should catch us up. If you're curious as to the case to why selling SaskTel, in any amount, is a bad idea, I encourage you to go back and read the first post on Bill 40.

Now that the bill is law, we need to add a reason to that list that hasn't been discussed very much yet. Surprisingly, the province has talked a bit about this given the cuts to the Grants-in-Lieu to Municipalities, but Wall and Co. have yet to address a very real situation they're about to open the door to.

In another nutshell, the Grants-in-Lieu of Taxes was an ages old agreement between the municipalities and the province as a means of revenue transfer from the province to the municipalities. But why, you ask?

The answer lies in the complex nature of taxation: No level of government can levy a tax against another level of government. As such, the Grants-in-Lieu of Taxes served as a complex web that compensated municipalities who couldn't levy taxes on the Crown Corporations in their communities. (For example, Yorkton couldn't levy property tax on the buildings owned and operated by SaskTel; since it would be one level of government taxing another.) This is a gross oversimplification of the Grants-in-Lieu of Taxes, and only looks at one aspect of the program, but it's the part we want to highlight for now.

Where else have you heard this argument?

Well, surprise surprise, Brad Wall has gone around for the better part of a year making this argument himself against the Federal Carbon Tax. Wall has argued that the province would have legal grounds to fight any federally imposed Carbon Tax if it was applied against any of Saskatchewan's Crown Corporations. Since one level of government cannot levy tax on another, a federal Carbon Tax would in effect potentially violate that notion. So, Wall is certainly aware of the limits of federal taxation when it comes to the Crown Corporations.

And that's what makes this next part rather shockingly frustrating.

Under Section 149, d.1 of the Income Tax Act of Canada, Crown Corporations are exempted from Federal Income Tax, as they are owned by the Crown. The problem, however, is that the threshold of what qualifies as a Crown Corporation is a corporation wherein no less than 90% of shares are owned by the Crown.

Bill 40 would allow the government to sell up to 49% of the shares in a Crown Corporation; leaving the Crown with only 51% of the shares, and thus falling massively below the federal tax threshold of 90%. As such, Bill 40 opens the door for any Crown to sell more than 10% of shares to be taxed on the federal level; a tax which they currently do not pay.

Wall, who has spent the better part of the last two years railing against any potential new taxes levied on Saskatchewan by the feds, finds himself in a somewhat hypocritical position here as he just passed a law that opens Crown Corporations to being taxed by the federal government once a stake in them is sold.

Pot meet kettle, and all that, I suppose. It is really quite strange to watch a politician who has been in a Quixotic-like war of words with the federal government pass a bill that basically cedes a lot of ground to them on the issue of taxation. I'd have some kind of joke here for that, but really, it's kind of too mind-boggling to even try.

The fact of the matter is, ultimately, Bill 40 is going to do more harm than good. As highlighted in the last post, SaskTel for example provides a level of service that would not exist under any "national" competitor. We talked about the Black Market for SaskTel cell phones across the country. We talked about the risk to infrastructure development and investment in "low coverage areas". We talked about the risk of rising rates once the regional carrier has been effectively rendered useless. And now, we can talk about opening the Crowns open to a federal tax responsibility they currently are exempted from.

So, what happens now?

Wall and Co. have been adamant that no offer is currently before the government on any of our Crowns, although their trustworthiness on this kind of issue is suspect at best given their history of closed room deals thus far in the province. (We'll talk more about this one at some point.)

The province thus far in response to the budget has been rather proactive. Earlier this week, cuts to provincial libraries were completely rolled back by the province; and a huge part of that was due to public outcry and support for our local libraries. As such, we've established that it is possible for the province to blink.

Which means that every action taken by this government from now is effectively a staring contest between them and the people of Saskatchewan. It's our job to get out there and make sure they're one who blink first.