Time for a review, former official says

Crown Corporations, Energy, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances, Public Sector, Role of Government, Saskatchewan

Much has changed in the dozen years since Saskatchewan Crown corporations were last reviewed, including the value of Crown assets and the Canadian dollar, inflation, technology and the level of competition in the marketplace.

That's why it's time to take another look at the Crowns, says a former senior official of the provincial government's holding company, who is now semi-retired and living in Victoria.

"I think it's time for a new Crown review,'' said Sheldon Schwartz, a Regina native who worked for the provincial government for 25 years, including stints as assistant deputy minister of finance and chief financial officer with Crown Investments Corp. (CIC).

Schwartz said the review could include all 11 commercial Crown corporations, but would focus on CIC's "Big Four" — SaskPower at $4.5 billion in assets, SaskTel at $1.3 billion, SaskEnergy at $1.4 billion and SGI Canada (not including the Auto Fund) at $700 million.

Schwartz, who a has master's degree in economics and holds a chartered financial analyst designation, said a "lot has changed'' since the last review was done in 1996. For example, inflation has increased the price of consumer goods by 25 per cent since then.

"The Canadian dollar was at 73 cents, oil was at $20 (US) a barrel … more than a half a generation of changes in the commercial, regulatory, technological and competitive environment,'' Schwartz told a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Frontier Centre of Public Policy.

More importantly, much has changed since Crown corporations were established in the last century to provide services not being provided by the private sector or not available to all residents at a reasonable price.

Schwartz said a review would answer a number of questions about the Crowns, such as: "What is the current value of the taxpayers' equity?" or "How are they performing against their peers'' in the private sector or "What activities of each of the commercial Crown corporation are for public-policy purposes?''

The review would also answer 'bigger picture' questions about the Crowns, such as whether they still have any public purpose or whether they represent an efficient use of taxpayers' dollars, he added.

"Which of (the commercial Crowns) have achieved their mandates? For those that have, what's the public-policy purpose of maintaining government ownership? For those that haven't, what happened?"

Schwartz said the review should be "independent of government, rigorous, objective and transparent."

"Because you've got public assets … why not have open public input and debate and make the results public?"

But Ken Cheveldayoff, minister of Crown corporations, poured cold water on the idea of a comprehensive Crown review at this time.

"I can tell you that a review is not a priority of the Saskatchewan Party government right now," Cheveldayoff told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix earlier this week. "We've got all that we can handle with investors wanting to invest in our province and people moving back and immigration and job creation, so that is our priority."

The government is offering the private sector an opportunity to propose plans for energy generation and other public-private partnerships, but Crowns will remain publicly owned, Cheveldayoff said.