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It’s Not Always The Little Things That Cause Problems

by Murray Mandryk
Saskatchewan Legislative Building

They say it’s the little things in politics that get politicians into trouble. By that, they mean politicians spending $16 on a glass of orange juice or taking a limo while on a foreign trip to London, the kind of thing that the average person simply can’t afford to do, but surely can grasp. Generally, people are more forgiving and tolerant than that, especially if the government is meeting the goals of the public, reflecting its values and providing good governance. Consider the long-running CCF-NDPadministrations of Tommy Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd, Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow, and Lorne Calvert.

Although their social democratic approach didn’t perfectly reflect philosophical free-enterprise nature of Saskatchewan agriculture, mining, oil and business, the public was remarkably tolerant of them when they provided good governance that included balanced budgets. Only when they reverted to spending precious tax dollars on costly Crown corporation investments did public support wane. The same can be said for the Grant Devine Progressive Conservative administration of the 1980s that swept into power not so much because of a desire for philosophical change in direction but because the previous NDP administration was seen as more interested in Crown spending than providing that good governance. However, what did the Devine Tories in wasn’t the petty theft of caucus fund money by a few politicians and their staff. The public didn’t even know about the fraud until after the PC government was voted out. In fact, what did in the Devine government, was massive debt with little reward. It was this big-time spending that, eventually, resulted in the need for big tax increases that eventually cost this government power.

Slowly, the same problem has now crept up on Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government. The final numbers are now in for the 2016-17 budget and they show a $1.2-billion deficit, three times the initial deficit predicted when this budget was presented in June 2016 just two months after Wall’s third election win. It is also among the highest recorded deficits in the province’s history. This marks the sixth deficit budget out of nine for Wall’s government when you measure it on a summary finances basis that includes all the Crown corporations. Suffice to say, this isn’t a favorable record, especially when one considers that the early years of the Wall government were some of the best economic times in Saskatchewan history. This government did not find itself in financial trouble because of little things.

Notwithstanding all the unproven allegations now under RCMP investigation of fraudulent land purchases and sales to the government in Regina’s Global Transportation Hub, the source of Saskatchewan’s growing debt isn’t the $103,000 an acre taxpayers wound up paying for land under development. However, as a project that connects to the $1.9-billion Regina by-pass, a project that had an initial $500-million price tag, this is part of a massive government spending initiative. In fact, it is so massive that the by-pass is gobbling up half of the entire Highways Ministry spending budget this year. That does not necessarily include all the land acquisition costs that got the Wall government into so much trouble on the GTH. By any measure, this is not one of the “little things” that supposedly gets government in trouble. Nor is the massive investment $1.6-billion Boundary Dam carbon capture and storage project a little thing. One can argue that such big spending was either necessary or what people wanted. However, what people clearly did not want is to see their taxes rise as a result. Nor did they want to see cuts in services like the Saskatchewan Transportation Company. One might think it`s the little things that get politicians in trouble, but in the end, it’s often the very big things.

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