‘MR. SASKATCHEWAN’ STEPS UP AS DE­FENDER OF OIL­PATCH.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - Clau­dia Cat­ta­neo Western Busi­ness Colum­nist

The oil crash has been rough on political lead­ers, but not Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. If opin­ion polls prove ac­cu­rate, the two- term premier and his Saskatchewan Party are sail­ing to­ward an­other solid ma­jor­ity in the April 4 pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

Wall, 50, re­mains wildly pop­u­lar de­spite his oil- pro­duc­ing prov­ince’s eco­nomic slow­down and de­te­ri­o­rat- ing govern­ment fi­nances. Sim­i­lar con­di­tions con­trib­uted to the de­feat last year of con­ser­va­tive, oil- in­dus­try sup­port­ive gov­ern­ments in Al­berta and in Ottawa and are even pok­ing a hole in Wall’s nar­ra­tive that “Sask. Party times are good times” — as Regina Leader- Post colum­nist Mur­ray Mandryk re­cently put it.

“It is pretty in­ter­est­ing to watch how Mr. Wall’s pop­u­lar­ity con­tin­ues to defy the odds,” said Quito Maggi, pres­i­dent and CEO of Main­street Re­search, which has done polling in the prov­ince. Af­ter eight years in power, “it hasn’t di­min­ished. He seems to have a real knack for be­ing fo­cused on the things that the peo­ple in Saskatchewan see as pri­or­i­ties, rather than be­ing side­tracked on pet projects … In terms of his elec­tion, it’s vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed.”

A poll by the pub­lic re­search firm con­ducted for Post­media News Feb. 11 of 1,477 Saskatchewan res­i­dents shows 49 per cent of re­spon­dents said they would vote for the Saskatchewan Party.

Twenty-eight per cent said they would vote for the NDP — headed by Cam Broten — and six per cent said their bal­lot would go to the Lib­er­als; 14 per cent were un­de­cided.

“We have got a party and a leader in Saskatchewan that has a very dif­fer­ent pro­file in the elec­torate’s eyes than the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives or the Al­berta Con­ser­va­tives,” said Univer­sity of Saskatchewan political sci­ence pro­fes­sor Joseph Garcea. “A lot has to do with the con­tin­ued high de­gree of con­fi­dence and re­spect for the premier’s man­age­ment of the econ­omy, and pub­lic man­age­ment in gen­eral.”

Wall’s cham­pi­oning of is­sues of na­tional im­por­tance — such as his de­fence of pipe­lines and of the oil econ­omy — is also play­ing well at home, Garcea said.

“That res­onates quite strongly with a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion,” Garcea said. “( Wall) doesn’t suf­fer the same kind of l egit­i­macy cri­sis t hat per­haps Mr. Harper and ( f ormer Al­berta Premier Jim) Pren­tice ended up suf­fer­ing.”

Since t he el ec­tion of Al­berta’s pro­vin­cial NDP and f ed­eral Lib­eral gov­ern­ments, Wall has in­deed stepped up as chief de­fender of Western Canada’s re­source econ­omy, a role that has en­deared him to Al­berta’s right and that re­flects frus­tra­tion with other un­moved politi­cians.

In t he past few days a l one, he has: warned against a fed­eral car­bon tax, which he said would “kneecap” an al­ready strug­gling econ­omy; asked for $ 156 mil­lion from the fed- eral govern­ment to clean up old wells in the prov­ince to put un­em­ployed en­ergy in­dus­try work­ers back to work; crit­i­cized the po­ten­tial fed­eral bailout of Bom­bardier Inc., not­ing that if Ottawa goes through with it, it should also help Western Canada by ap­prov­ing Tran­sCanada Corp.’s En­ergy East pipe­line pro­ject.

“Part of his pop­u­lar­ity is that he has this na­tional pro­file, and that he is one of only a few voices in Western Canada — at least now — and his­tor­i­cally has been one of the stronger ones, that i s go­ing to be cham­pi­oning oil and pipe- lines and anti car­bon tax,” said Maggi. How­ever, “as time goes on, and there is more ac­cep­tance of cli­mate change, he has to be more care­ful of peo­ple’s per­cep­tions. More and more of our polling and other re­search sees that few peo­ple now deny cli­mate change and its im­pact, so he has to be care­ful to stay on the side of facts. And so far he’s man­aged to do that.”

That’s where Al­berta’s Not­ley and Bri­tish Columbia Premier Christy Clark have placed their mar­bles, while dis­tanc­ing t hem­selves from the oil econ­omy.

In Al­berta, Not­ley is pay­ing a high price. A Feb. 17 An­gus Reid In­sti­tute ( ARI) anal­y­sis shows Not­ley’s NDP has f allen to t hird place in terms of pop­u­lar sup­port, and only one- third of Al­ber­tans be­lieve Not­ley is do­ing a good job, down 45 per cent in De­cem­ber. Clark’s ap­proval rat­ing is even lower — down three points from last quar­ter to 31 per cent, though B. C.’s econ­omy is strong.

In con­trast, Wall has the ap­proval of the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in Saskatchewan ( 62 per cent), un­changed since last quar­ter, mak­ing him the most- ap­proved- of premier in the coun­try.

Duane Bratt, chair of the depart­ment of pol­icy stud­ies at Mount Royal Univer­sity in Cal­gary, said the oil crash con­trib­uted to Pren­tice’s de­feat and is hurt­ing Not­ley even more.

She “came in when times were bad and they have got­ten worse un­der her watch,” he said. “Peo­ple don’t have mem­o­ries of good times in Al­berta un­der Rachel Notl ey. There were no good t i mes be­cause she is so new.”

“With Brad Wall, there were lots of good times, al­most a decade of good times in Saskatchewan,” Bratt said. “( Un­der Wall) it was the best time to be in Saskatchewan prob­a­bly back to the 1910, 1920s.

“He has that reser­voir of good will. He is also a bril­liant politi­cian. He has been able to brand him­self as Mr. Saskatchewan very ef­fec­tively.”

To be sure, the oil price col­lapse has not been as dam­ag­ing to Saskatchewan as it has been for Al­berta. The Saskatchewan econ­omy is more di­ver­si­fied, a sales tax but­tresses govern­ment rev­enue, and its pro­jected deficit is not as bad as Al­berta’s. Two weeks ago, Wall pre­dicted a mod­est deficit this fis­cal year and next, and a re­turn to bal­ance in 2017-18 if he’s re- elected.

The Saskatchewan elec­tion cam­paign has yet to shift to high gear, and a per­fect storm could yet ma­te­ri­al­ize to end Wall’s reign. So far, Garcea said, “no­body seems to be­lieve that that storm is go­ing to de­velop.”

Mean­while, Wall’s hands on han­dling of t he oi l down­turn ap­pears to have struck the right tone.

NO­BODY SEEMS TO BE­LIEVE THAT THAT STORM IS GO­ING TO DE­VELOP.

MARK TAY­LOR / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS/

Brad Wall has the ap­proval of the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in Saskatchewan (62 per cent), un­changed since last quar­ter, mak­ing him the most-ap­proved-of premier in the coun­try.

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