Bye bye, Brad Wall: Saskatchewan’s departing premier defied political gravity for years

Bye bye, Brad Wall: Saskatchewan’s departing premier defied political gravity for years

By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director

Bye bye, Brad. The people of Saskatchewan will miss you, but maybe not as much as they might have before.

With Thursday’s announcement that he’s retiring from politics, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall ends a remarkable run. He seemed to defy the kind of political gravity that pulls politicians down the longer they stay in. For six years – yes, years – Wall maintained approval levels in the 60 per cent rage.

Indeed, his popularity peaked not in his first, but second term, after winning nearly two-thirds of the popular vote in an election that would mark the third largest electoral majority in that province. In the fall of 2011, 71 per cent of Saskatchewanians approved of the job he was doing. In very scientific parlance, that’s a bananas level of approval.

Looking back, it may not have initially appeared Wall was destined for such heights. 2010 saw his approval in the respectable mid-50 per cent range. But that was not nearly as impressive as the job performance ratings Newfoundland and Labradoreans awarded then-premier Danny Williams, which, ranging from 72 and 80 per cent, were even more bananas.

Williams’ exit at the end of that year left a field wide open for a successor in the popular premier sweepstakes. Why Brad Wall? More obviously, he presided over an economic renaissance that instilled pride. “Saskatchewan becomes the new Alberta,” gushed The Economist in 2008. The resource sector, driven largely by potash, oil and natural gas, boosted growth rates that rivalled – if not outperformed – those of British Columbia and Ontario over a five-year period, from 2008-2013. People moved back home. The housing market rallied. Suddenly, Saskatchewan was kind of cool.

Brad Wall

Anyone can take credit for economic serendipity, but Wall also earned merit for how he managed the windfall, at least, in the early years. In a province where access to health care was becoming an increasing concern, his government moved relatively effectively to hire doctors and nurses, and clear backlogs on surgical waitlists.

Politically, Wall’s Saskatchewan Party years also restored dignity to a conservative movement that was still tarnished and demoralized years after the scandals of the Grant Devine government that saw more than a dozen Saskatchewan Progressive Conservative MLAs charged with fraud.

Further, Premier Brad “call me Brad” Wall engendered a political style that was not only approachable, but – at times – even fun while managing affairs of state. Yes, his Twitter feed was filled with the not-so-humble-bragging that politicians must do to highlight their achievements, along with the elbows-up partisan messaging that rallies the base. But it was also home to a variety of messages about his love of country music and the Roughriders, roughly in that order.

Wall’s wonderful years made it difficult for humble pollsters to come up with new headlines indicating the same old story about his popularity, but politicians at every level of government, in every part of the country, must have wondered how and where they could get their hands on the kind of magic sparkle fairy dust that burnished his image.

Inevitably, even magic sparkle fairy dust runs out. And when things turn, they turn fast. The cratering of oil prices didn’t just take a devastating toll on Saskatchewan’s economic fortunes, but – eventually – on  Wall’s political fortunes. Over a 13-month period, from May 2016 to June 2017, the premier’s approval plummeted, from 66 per cent, to 45 per cent. Where budget surpluses had once ruled the day, he’d tabled a nearly $700 million deficit and implemented painful spending cuts. Where low taxes were once expected, hundreds of millions in taxes were levied, including an increase to the PST.

And while Wall was still seen as best among party leaders to handle the economy, polling at the end of spring showed the NDP ahead in Regina and Saskatoon.

Wall exits the provincial arena leaving with an enviable political highlight reel, along with his own admissions of unspecified “mistakes”. He says he has no job lined up and no interest in federal politics. But recently, particularly before the election of federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, he became the conservative voice partisans from across the country rallied around: defending and promoting pipelines, and opposing the Trudeau government’s plans for carbon pricing.

After 18 years in provincial politics, including ten as premier, it’s unlikely the splendours of the national stage have anything to offer. But I doubt it will stop Conservatives coast to coast from trying to recruit him.

Who will succeed Brad Wall as the premier who is loved over a long period of time by his or her electorate? Given their own trendlines, none of the current premiers seem poised to pick up the mantle. And even though Danny Williams quit Newfoundland and Labrador politics with an approval rating of 67 per cent, Wall leaves at the top of the current pack: announcing his resignation with a job performance approval – that even at 45 per cent – the rest of his peers can only dream about.

Editors’ note: The stories in this Analysis section are opinion pieces. They reflect the views of their authors, not those of the Angus Reid Institute as an organization.

Image Credit: Daniel Paquet/Flickr