In the era of Justin Trudeau selfies, Brad Wall doesn’t even have an Instagram profile. In a world that seems to have polarized into ideological extremes and eschews the ‘establishment,’ he is running on an avowed platform of ‘more of the same.’
With Liberals ascendant at the federal level and Liberal or leftist governments in power in each of Canada’s other provinces, he leads the only conservative government left across his country.
But on Monday, when Saskatchewan voters go to the polls, they are almost certainly reelect Wall and his ‘small-c’ conservative party, the provincial Saskatchewan Party, to a third term — probably by a nearly two-to-one margin over the nearest opponent, the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). Polls give Wall’s party nearly 60% of the vote and with it a chance to retain or even increase its 49-member caucus in Saskatchewan’s 58-member Legislative Assembly.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Wall, who consistently ranks as Canada’s most popular premier, is in some ways a throwback to the pragmatic Progressive Conservative Party of the 20th century, a conservative focused squarely on business-friendly policies with a healthy share of humility about government’s ability to effect sweeping change. In his first term, Wall took pains to acknowledge that Saskatchewan’s boom had more to do with global commodity prices than with his own wizardry. Voters, facing the pinch of low oil and gas prices in a province that depends on natural resources, seem willing to give Wall the benefit of the doubt now that Saskatchewan’s economic fortunes are slumping though.
In his first two terms, Wall, personally and politically the personification of prudence, deployed $2 billion in revenues, on top of his government’s budget surpluses, into the province’s Growth and Financial Security Fund. Under Wall, Saskatchewan has reversed a population decline — so much so that it’s now attracting residents at some of the highest levels in the county. Wall has also been careful to place Saskatchewan’s priorities over ideological concerns, going out of his way to maintain official neutrality in the last federal election, though it must have been clear to anyone that Wall’s views aligned most naturally with then-prime minister Stephen Harper.
Among his peers, Wall is perhaps the most powerful defender of Canada’s oil interests, more so than even oil-rich Alberta’s NDP premier Rachel Notley, elected last May. He’s defended Canada’s projected oil pipeline projects and promoted Canada’s energy economy with such vigour that Maclean’s last month dubbed him ‘Alberta’s other premier,’ acknowledging that Wall has become, and will be for some time, the most powerful and influential voice of the Canadian right in national or provincial government. That’s not to say that Wall is a climate change-denier, and he has even shown that’s he open to small steps toward reducing carbon emissions, if not the sweeping kind of carbon tax that Alberta’s Notley is implementing. (Wall is nonetheless careful to add that any tax measures on the largest carbon emitters should take effect only after Canada’s recession, not today.)
Wall’s party, the Saskatchewan Party, emerged in 1997, in part as a response to the toxic brand that the Progressive Conservatives developed under former premier Grant Devine, who left office in a landslide defeat in 1991 after 13 of his party’s 55 legislators were charged with expenses fraud. In a decade when conservative politics was undergoing an even broader transformation, provincial Progressive Conservatives and what was left of the Liberal Party of Saskatchewan — a deflated third force in the province that long ago fell behind the NDP* — joined forces to form a new centrist party.
Wall, from the first days of his leadership in 2004, acknowledged that privatizing the province’s publicly-owned ‘Crown corporations’ would be off-limits, and he’s taken a similarly pragmatic approach since he came to power in 2007.
Preston Manning, he’s not.
Instead, he’s the kind of conservative that tea-party types and anti-government flamethrowers in the United States seem to hold in contempt today. The closest analog to Wall in the current Republican Party might be someone like Ohio governor John Kasich — a firm conservative focused more on building jobs and improving standard of living, instead of using power as a laboratory for conservative ideology.
Trudeau’s come-from-behind victory in the final weeks of last autumn’s federal election left the Canadian right in tatters. Harper abruptly resigned as Conservative Party leader (remember, only its first since the 2005 merger between the western Canadian Alliance and the more established, eastern Progressive Conservatives), and other top Tories, like Peter MacKay and John Baird, had long left government, though MacKay, the last PC leader who engineered the merger with Harper’s Alliance, and a former defense and justice minister, leads polls for the 2017 Conservative leadership race. Nevertheless, east-west divisions will continue to plague the Tories, and conservative businessman Kevin O’Leary, is openly considering an outsider challenge for the leadership, explicitly based on Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Wall, for his part, has demurred any interest in the Conservative leadership — several times. He’s not even a member of the party, and the past is littered with would-be prime ministers who failed to make the jump to federal politics (Ontario’s Bob Rae) or provincial stars who never quite rode to the rescue (Ontario’s Mike Harris or New Brunswick’s Bernard Lord). It’s also difficult to believe that Wall, who doesn’t speak French, would navigate Quebecker trade unionists or even Ontario’s teachers unions.
Moreover, as voters tire of the status quo, it’s certain that Wall will not be the only conservative premier. On April 19, Brian Pallister, the leader of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives, is on track to win his own provincial election, benefiting from voter anger against the NDP, which have held provincial power there since 1999.
That doesn’t mean that the national spotlight will fade from Wall, especially if (more likely when) he wins another landslide in Saskatchewan next week. Nominations for the Conservative leadership close only in February 2017 for a contest that will not even take place until May 27, nearly 20 months after the last general election. With Wall focused on reelection today, there’s at least some chance, however small, that he will feel differently by next winter (perhaps in response to a plea from Tories to save them from a Trump-style takeover by O’Leary).
More likely, however, Wall will continue to play the role of Tory standard-bearer, showing the party how to win over moderates in a province once famous for its socialism and that lies in the very center of Canada’s heartland. Though he might never become Canada’s prime minister, it’s still an important role to play for a country that has so far avoided the kind of extremism or polarization afflicting its neighbor to the south.
* In its prior form as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP dominated Saskatchewan politics under Tommy Douglas in the 1940s and early 1950s and can claim an important role to pushing Canada’s federal government toward adopting single-payer health care. Today, after a humiliating third-place loss in the federal election (just weeks after polls showed that Thomas Mulcair was leading the contest to become the next prime minister), the NDP seems more rudderless than ever, with a near-certain defeat looming in Manitoba on April 19.