Wall government gave agriculture portfolio respect

The response to Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s announced departure from politics last week has been largely laudatory — even to the point of eye-rolling, with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeting that Wall “will go down in history as the man who turned the fortunes of Saskatchewan around.”

Inheriting a budget surplus and then running five deficit budgets over the next decade during booming oil and commodity prices and leaving the province vulnerable to the recent collapse in prices (and thus revenues) renders Harper’s comment debatable.

Regardless, when it comes to agriculture, the Wall government’s performance was largely positive. For the most part, policy is set by federal-provincial frameworks, chiefly the Growing Forward initiatives, in which the Wall government had input. They have been successful, though the AgriStability insurance program remains a sore point.

Wall was not an activist, policy-oriented premier in the agriculture sector. He largely served to let farmers conduct their business and responded to what they needed.

Early in his tenure, Wall signed the New West Partnership Trade Agreement with British Columbia and Alberta, signalling his intentions to pave the way for a better regulatory environment for the movement of goods in the private sector.

He would later bolster that effort as a signatory to the Canada Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in July. That deal addresses regulatory standards, trucking rules and labour mobility, among other things.

Wall earned national praise for his efforts to prevent the sale of Saskatchewan’s PotashCorp in 2010 to Australia’s BHP Billiton. He outlined his case in an impressively researched speech to the Regina Chamber of Commerce in October of that year, forcing Harper to pay attention. The Conference Board of Canada contends that preventing the sale saved Saskatchewan $2 billon in revenue over 10 years.

Also that year, when flooding left farms in parts of the province a soggy mess, with more than 70 communities declaring states of emergency, Wall worked with the federal government on a package that was valued at $360 million for Saskatchewan.

During the grain transportation fiasco of 2013-14, in which large parts of a record crop sat in bins because of bad weather and a failure of rail companies to provide adequate transportation, Wall sent a delegation to Ottawa to pressure Harper to take action. The Harper government responded with Bill C-30, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, which mandated grain shipping volumes for railways and extended interswitching up to 160 kilometres of an interchange. It was largely successful, so much so that farm groups lobbied for it to be extended pending new legislation.

The Wall government also addressed the almost no-win issue of drainage, chiefly by requiring that farmers acquire permits for drainage on their properties, despite farm organizations calling for a delay. But something had to be done, given that, by one estimate, there is non-permitted drainage on 150,000 quarters in Saskatchewan.

It’s safe to say that in the main, agriculture was a strong file for the Wall government. Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart remains popular, and Wall’s ardent campaign against a federal carbon tax — calling a federal white paper on the initiative “more like a ransom note,” adding he would take the federal government to court over any such imposition — placed him squarely on the side of farmers.

It is fair to expect that the Wall government’s direction on agriculture is likely to be followed by his successor.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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