Saskatchewan NDP feeling good about fall session
Saskatchewan NDP leader Ryan Meili felt his team of opposition MLAs had been successful to highlight various issues during the fall session of the Saskatchewan Legislature.
“We just come out of a pretty strong session that ended on the sixth of December and we were really happy with the way things went,” he said during a conference call with media, Dec. 17.
The NDP focused on four issues during the fall session – the economy, health care, education, and lack of government transparency.
“We've heard in conversations all around the province of the way in which the economy has slowed down and how some of the decisions, including the addition of PST on construction labour and on restaurant meals, have really exacerbated that slowdown,” he said. “So that was a big focus.”
The NDP caucus members have heard from people about significant decreases in employment opportunities in a number of key industries, including the construction sector.
He referred to data from the Saskatchewan Construction Association that estimated a loss of 14,000 jobs in that industry in the last three years.
Meili therefore felt the decision by the provincial government to add PST to construction labour came at the wrong time.
“That was a very unwise decision and one that we've heard loud and clear from folks all over that that has made it much harder for contractors to continue to find work and continue to employ people in the province,” he said.
“For example, in Moose Jaw they had 120 new builds in 2015 and only 10 last year. It's that kind of numbers in drops in projects that are resulting in a lot of people struggling in that industry.”
Health care outcomes and government underfunding of education were issues of ongoing concern for the NDP during the fall session.
“The health outcomes in Saskatchewan are not what they should be,” he said. “We have the worst health outcomes in the country, in fact, tied with Nova Scotia and when people are needing care it's just not there in a way that it should be. And along with that, the cuts to education, classrooms that are more complicated and more crowded and students struggling as a result.”
Health care is already the largest single spending item in the provincial budget and Meili felt the NDP's concerns cannot be addressed through more spending.
“The answer is not ever escalating spending in health care,” he said. “In health care it's about wise spending, making sure we're running a well functioning system and there are lots of things we can do to improve the design and actually save money in health care by going down the road of a choosing wisely approach where we are more guided by evidence to make sure that we're prescribing the right medications, that we're using the right imaging, that we're performing the right surgeries and things that actually will work. There's a lot of activity that happens within the health care system that isn't actually impactful in terms of health outcomes.”
He added that health outcomes can be improved through a focus on broader socio-economic issues in the provincial budget.
“It's whether enough people have decent jobs, decent income, a safe place to stay, have a chance at a good education,” he said.
“It's making the wise investments in other parts of the budget, doing so guided by the best available science of what will improve our health outcomes, which should be the primary goal of our government, making the best investments there that will improve health outcomes but also ultimately decrease costs in the health care system.”
The NDP continued to ask questions during the fall session about the government's spending of public money on the Global Transportation Hub (GTH) and the Regina bypass project.
A new issue that came up during this session was the government's handling of vendor-sponsored travel for public employees.
“It's really important that we point out those issues in order to make sure that the government is accountable, both for their decisions as well as the ethics of how they run their day to day operations,” he said.
According to Meili a number of things can be done to ensure the accountability and transparency of any future government.
“I think there are things we can do with our Freedom of Information legislation that makes it more effective so that we're able to get access to information,” he said.
“One of the things that's the most frustrating about being in opposition is you think you're sitting in the legislature, you're part of government and yet you're kind of a mushroom, you're kept in the dark. ... The reality is it's so opaque, it's so difficult to know what's really going on. Let's improve our FOI legislation so that when we ask questions we get answers, let's expand the powers of the auditor so they're able to look into more things.”
Another measure favoured by the NDP is a review of Saskatchewan's campaign finance laws to ban donations from corporations and unions to political parties, to end outof-province donations, and to set a limit on individual donations.
“We're committed to ending that practice,” he said. “Saskatchewan has the worst legislation in terms of companies from out of province donating millions of dollars to the SaskParty and the same companies that donate to the SaskParty winding up with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts paid for with our money. That needs to stop. End the big gifts from companies, especially out of province companies so that when we're looking at contracts, who are getting to do the work, it's being decided based on the value for the money of the people of Saskatchewan, not the value to the coffers of the SaskParty.”
The NDP introduced a number of bills during this session, including one to increase the minimum wage over the next few years up to $15 per hour.
“I think from the rhetoric we're hearing from the government, increasing the minimum wage isn't something they think is valuable, which is really disappointing,” he said.
Saskatchewan's minimum wage increased with 10 cents to $11.06 on Oct. 1, but at the same time the minimum wage in Alberta increased $1.40 to $15. He feels a decent wage will not only make a difference to the quality of life of workers, but it will also benefit the economy.
“When you have lower wage workers gaining a decent wage they stick around, the productivity increases but also they spend that money locally,” he said.
“So I think it's a real disservice that the SaskParty doesn't and in fact somewhat contrary to what should be their values as a conservative party. They should want fewer people relying on social services, fewer people relying on social programs, but by keeping the minimum wage so low, they actually force more people to rely on welfare and other social support.”
The federal carbon tax was a frequent discussion point during the legislature's fall session. Meili blamed the provincial government for the fact that the federal carbon tax will be applied in Saskatchewan in 2019.
“What we've seen is this government resisting the decision of the federal government to impose a tax and we agree, we shouldn't have something imposed from Ottawa,” he said. “However, what Scott Moe et al have failed to do is come up with a backup plan, and so as a result starting April 1 there will be a carbon pricing plan that's designed in Ottawa and it will be applied to Saskatchewan and that won't have had farm leaders, industry leaders, experts right here in Saskatchewan at the table as part of the design. So it won't be sensitive to the economic needs and the specifics of our local industry, and I think that's a real failure on the part of Moe.”
According to Meili the provincial government is not doing enough to increase the percentage of energy generation from Saskatchewan's renewable resources.
“We also have great opportunities in wind, biomass and geothermal, and yet we're far behind other jurisdictions in terms of the percentage of our energy and electricity that's coming from renewable sources or in the amount of energy we're losing because of lack of conservation efforts,” he said.
One of the NDP's policy ideas, which were announced during the fall session, is called Renew Saskatchewan. The aim of the plan is to reduce cost barriers that will make it more affordable for households, farmers, businesses and local authorities to do energy retrofits and to finance clean energy installations.
“It's just a part of our climate change plan, but one that I think is really exciting,” he said.
“It's a focus on an opportunity for business owners, farmers, homeowners, smaller communities and even larger municipalities to participate in a transition to renewable energy in a way that lowers their bills, employs a lot of Saskatchewan people and also allows people opportunities to make money by selling power back to the grid.”
Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidate Ryan Meili spoke at a meet and greet in Swift Current, Jan. 8, 2018.