Regina Cozying Up to Business

Media Appearances, Crown Corporations, Frontier Centre

Maybe the most surprising thing about the nuclear power debate now underway in Saskatchewan is that the controversy revolves around, of all things, nuclear power.

On newspaper letters pages and on radio call-in shows, Saskatchewanians are arguing the technology's merits, rather than getting worked up, as anyone familiar with provincial history might expect, over who owns it. Cabinet ministers recently appeared alongside the smiling chief executive of Bruce Power to announce the company would begin analyzing immediately how to bring nuclear to the province — completely privately. Remarkably, citizens were not moved to march on the legislature's steps. Even the NDP, which used to warn darkly of the Saskatchewan Party's "hidden agenda" to privatize power, and every other public asset, is devoting its firepower to arguing that any plant is bound to suck subsidies from taxpayers.

Actually, Saskatchewan taxpayers have backed power generators, insurers, phone companies, bus lines, film studios, potato farms, fertilizer makers and a phone book of businesses for years: The province operates nearly 40 Crown corporations, and the NDP midwifed many of them, demonizing anyone who suggested they mightn't all be indispensable.

Premier Lorne Calvert memorably pounced on a remark by Elwin Hermanson, Saskatchewan Party leader during 2003's election, that it "would be crazy" not to at least consider certain buyout offers. Mr. Calvert stoked hysteria to seize victory from probable defeat, and hasn't stopped yowling about privatization since.

The Saskatchewan Party's November win under new leader Brad Wall came only after continual vows not to sell even used office furniture from the cherished Crowns, and endorsing a law making any privatization proposals illegal unless followed immediately by an election.

Still, it's clear Premier Wall is trying to carefully inch his province away from the reflex to nationalize everything under the Living Skies. In the old days, Saskatchewanians would take for granted that new power facilities would naturally get built by Sask-Power, says David Seymour, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy's Saskatchewan analyst.

Crown Corporations Minister Ken Cheveldayoff has beckoned private electric companies everywhere to come bidding on the province, saying "not every dollar risked in power generation in Saskatchewan should be a government dollar." Enterprise Minister Lyle Stewart revealed last week he would sell Saskatchewan's stake in fertilizer producer Saskferco. In April, he said he wanted to end an NDP-era arrangement obliging $25-million yearly public investments in Saskatchewan firms: "Our government does not believe it is in the overall interests of the economy that government is picking winners and losers," he said.

The government will also "review all out-of-province operations" of Crown agencies. And one of Mr. Wall's first acts as Premier was repealing laws giving the government unfettered power to expropriate potash industry assets at whim.

"There's no doubt that this government is trying to send out all kinds of messages that it wants the province to be business-friendly and that it's willing to be flexible in the kinds of businesses the Crowns get into or expand the scope of their activity in," says Joe Garcea, a University of Saskatchewan political scientist.

It's no secret Mr. Wall sees Saskatchewan following its rich Western neighbour in turning its resource gifts into an economic miracle. He's raised potfuls from Calgary's oil moguls, many of them Saskatchewan boys who fled NDP socialism. He preaches Albertastyle fiscal policies, or better (he's kept oil royalties lower). He's ditched the NDP's union-cozy labour policies. After just seven months in office, Mr. Wall has fulfilled virtually all his pro-business promises. What can't be ignored, though, is that Alberta's road to riches runs straight through its public corporations.

Saskatchewan hasn't bothered to review its state-run companies in a dozen years, leaving citizens unsure what they're worth and whether they're worth keeping. In its report this month, TD Economics said unleashing economic Saskatchewan miracles means reassessing Crowns — many of which compete with, and occasionally ruin or scare off, private entrepreneurs — and "disposing of those that do not pass the litmus test of providing value for taxpayer money."

Recently, Sheldon Schwartz, Saskatchewan's former Crown Investments Corp. CFO, emerged from retirement to gently suggest that at the very least Saskatchewanians pause to ask if Crowns are still fulfilling their original purpose.

"I think you can have a public, independent, objective and hopefully rational look at the situation, without suspicions that someone's got an agenda behind it," he says. "Any prudent shareholder should be asking questions about assets being held in trust for them."

Mr. Wall may be nervous to go even there, fearing what befell the last Saskatchewan Party leader who hinted at disposing of Crowns. The startling lack of uproar over Mr. Wall's modest moves away from state ownership, though, makes one wonder if Saskatchewanians, feeling the capitalist buzz of a commodity boom, are slowly losing their privatization paranoia, and may yet follow the prosperity trail blazed by Alberta, even if it is inch by careful inch