Wall called hypocrite over lawsuits
The last person to successfully challenge Saskatchewan Party legislation in court says the government’s decision to pre-emptively quash any legal battle over its controversial decision to strip $33 million from municipalities is “hypocritical.”
It makes no sense for Premier Brad Wall to threaten to sue the federal government over its carbon pricing plan while curbing the ability of local governments to fight the grant cuts, Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) president Larry Hubich said.
“What is the position of the Government of Saskatchewan? That it’s okay for them to sue the feds if they’re doing something they don’t like, but it’s not okay for municipal governments to hold the provincial government to account?”
Earlier this month, the Sask. Party introduced Bill 64, which redirects into its general revenue fund the $33 million that would otherwise have been paid to 109 municipalities by SaskPower, SaskEnergy and TransGas this year.
The bill — which received its second reading on April 12 and is expected to pass this session — includes a clause that prohibits any “action or proceeding based on any claim for loss or damage” against the government or the Crowns.
Government Relations Minister Donna Harpauer told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix on Wednesday that the province chose to include the clause “because (municipalities) were going to” launch a legal challenge.
Each piece of legislation is evaluated separately, but the government’s ability to pass bills without being “hand-tied” is part of the province’s democratic foundation, Harpauer said.
“Is it reasonable for the provincial government and a municipal government to spend money to fight each other in the courts? Is that reasonable?”
The SFL’s seven-year court challenge of provincial legislation — Bills 5 and 6, which dealt with trade unions and the definition of essential services — culminated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2015 ruling that the legislation had to be amended.
“If your legislation can’t stand without you actually invoking a clause like that, then maybe your legislation is flawed,” Hubich said. “And maybe what you’re trying to do as a government is actually a violation of what we really see as being a free and democratic society.”
A spokeswoman said Premier Brad Wall was not available for an interview Thursday.
However, he has said on multiple occasions that the province could challenge the Liberal government’s plan to introduce a price on carbon by 2018.
In an emailed statement, the spokeswoman said a lawsuit over a system that “isn’t fair to all Saskatchewan communities is nothing at all like” a lawsuit against the federal government’s carbon pricing plan “that would harm our economy.”
The possibility of legal action against the now-eliminated Crown corporation grants emerged late last month, when Saskatoon city council voted unanimously to pursue an injunction aimed at restoring about $11.4 million in grants to its budget.
While that action may not be possible, Mayor Charlie Clark, as well as the CEO of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA), contend that the province does not have the right to unilaterally eliminate the grants.
Clark and SUMA have said the grants paid by SaskPower, SaskEnergy and TransGas are based on historic deals made when municipalities gave up their rights to distribute gas and electricity, whereas other Crowns pay grants in lieu of property taxes.
Harpauer insisted this week that the decision to eliminate the grants in the 2017-18 budget is part of the government’s plan to reduce its $1.3 billion deficit while at the same time remedying an “inequitable” system.
Saskatchewan NDP interim leader Trent Wotherspoon said he takes a dim view not just of Bill 64, but also of the government’s decision to “rip up (SaskPower’s) decades-old contracts with cities and towns” — a choice he said could be in violation of the law.
“He’s a hypocrite,” Wotherspoon said of Wall. “Changing the law to simply get his way? It’s indecent, and it’s really running roughshod over the rights of people and of our cities and our towns.”
Wotherspoon declined to speculate on whether passage of Bill 64 will leave SUMA and the province’s municipalities with any legal recourse.
However, he added, “it’s about rising up, speaking out and working to stop the damage right now.”