Premier Brad Wall sat down with 980 CJME senior reporter Sarah Mills for an annual year-end interview. In this look back on 2016, he discussed the highs and lows of the year.
Sask. Party dominates election
The Sask. Party made quick work of picking up a majority of seats in the legislature on election night April 4.
Reflecting on his third-consecutive majority win, Wall said he was humbled by the outcome – but added the moment brought with it the somber reality of leading a province in transition.
“It was also kind of daunting because we knew the challenges that lie ahead,” Wall said.
“We didn’t know exactly where the budget was going to end up at that point. We knew there was going to be a deficit and probably a deficit this year and now we know it is a $806 million deficit. So we had an inkling that there would be tough decisions to make, but that is what we have signed on for.”
Pipelines and politics
While pipelines have dominated the national conversation, Wall had to deal with issues close to home.
In July, nearly two rail cars worth of oil spilled into the North Saskatchewan River. The spill, caused by a defect in a Husky Energy pipeline, led to water emergencies in North Battleford, Prince Albert and a number of surrounding rural communities.
“I was in the premiers meeting in the Yukon when I heard the news of the spill,” Wall said.
“The early reports don’t do justice to the huge nature of this spill. So you are frustrated – Frustrated that any pipe would break. Frustrated that this would happen to North Battleford or PA (Prince Albert), that they can’t drink water. And not just them but so many other communities were impacted.”
Wall stressed the need for accountability, adding the provincial government has already made changes to tighten up pipeline regulations.
“Pipelines have to be safe. We know they are safer than rail. But we have to avoid this especially where a pipeline might traverse a waterway,” he said.
The premier acknowledged the spill didn’t help those arguing in favour of pipelines, but returned attention to the safety of communities.
“We have to remember the context is still, ‘If not pipelines then how?’ Then by train? Well, we know those are not as safe. When there is a spill it is more severe actually.”
Wall also reflected on relations with Husky, a company Wall credits as a major employer in the province. Recently, the company announced more than $1 billion in investments they’re set to make in Saskatchewan, along with providing jobs in a downcast energy sector.
Wall noted he didn’t think Husky responded as rapidly as some would like, he thought that overall, the oil company was “pretty good to the communities.”
“The mayor of P.A. has said they tried to make sure that all the money was there without worrying about calculating it.They just said, ‘Look here it is and we will crunch the numbers later.’”
Global Transportation Hub
Wall brought up accountability once more when asked about his thoughts on the controversial Global Transportation Hub (GTH).
Questions were raised over the fall session of the legislature after Economy Minister Bill Boyd’s name appeared in the land deal for the hub, located in Regina. The NDP questioned whether Boyd had benefitted from the deal.
The provincial auditor found there were no conflicts of interest, but critics still pointed to higher than expected final costs.
“When there was a first sign of real concerns about it, when the public was asking, ‘Well, what is going on there?’ We asked the provincial auditor to look at it. Governments don’t always do that.”
The premier stressed his government took steps to remain transparent. But even with their best efforts, issues arose with the auditor’s findings.
“On July 4, she told your radio stations they were looking for red flags and had they saw them they would have acted. But they didn’t. They did identify mistakes that were made.
She pointed out, that look, where governments are trying to assemble land in an environment of escalating prices that was unprecedented, I am sure there were speculators out there realizing that this agricultural land would become industrial land and we can make some money.”
Wall said the province is going to respond to the recommendations.
“We will be the type of government that admits (mistakes) and then outlines how we will remedy them in the future and avoid them in the future. But what there was not, was conflict, neither bad faith, because we wanted to see this project be successful.”
He added one regret was letting the GTH – and its asset as a business creating hundreds of jobs – be overshadowed by debate.