Farmers for economic freedom

Updates from the Prairie Centre Policy Institute from Regina, Saskatchewan.

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web posted April 19, 2004

Stuck in the 1930s: The problem with Saskatchewan is its politics, not its people

By Mark Milke  

Think back 20 years and imagine yourself in some broken-down Soviet republic. You're forced to line up and buy many of life's necessities and luxuries from government agencies. Want telephone service? Apply to the Ministry of Telephones and we'll get back to you. Driver's licence and registration? Hey pal, see that long, winding line to the left? Or how about a drink? Pick your favourite beer from the state-run liquor store.

But never mind traveling back in time; to tour through nanny-state nirvana, just go to Saskatchewan. This past summer I visited a Prague museum which categorized everyday life before 1989 and I couldn't help but think of my last visit to Regina, except that Prague has better architecture, thanks to its pre-Soviet history. 

Think I'm being too flippant? Nyet. Since 1999, Saskatchewan has lost 20,000 people including -- as Statistics Canada noted last week -- 3,500 to Alberta last year. In contrast, this province added almost 219,000 souls over the last five years; it's as if we gained a city the size of Regina.

Now before angry Saskatchewanians, ex or otherwise, misunderstand me and send me dead chickens, I'm not picking on Saskatchewan's people. Far from it. My mother came from there and while I'm originally from British Columbia's Interior, I've always thought prairie souls have a certain solidness as opposed to many of my more loopy B.C. compatriots.

And I'll even grant this to Tommy Douglas socialists: Unlike West Coast tax-and-spenders, at least Sask socialists came to their mistaken 1930s command-and-control economic policies via good communal intentions. In contrast, B.C.'s New Democrats still think they're in the late 1800's with Scottish-imported battles between labour and business.

So I'm only picking on Saskatchewan's politicians, which a minority of that province's voters keep putting into office. (In the last election, the combined Saskatchewan party and Liberal party vote was 53.5 per cent compared with New Democrats at 44.6 per cent; the NDP won.)

But can anything be done? Sure --Saskatchewan's government could decide to stop hogging so much of that province's economy. (Provincial government, provincial Crown, and local government expenditures are 29.2 per cent of Saskatchewan's economy compared with 19.7 per cent here.) While there isn't an actual Ministry of Telephones in Saskatchewan, SaskTel is a Crown corporation, which is about the same inefficient thing. Power is also government-run and owned, as are multiple other commanding heights of the economy.

Saskatchewan has tried to run potato plants (and lost $28 million), an ethanol plant, and even invested $6 million in electronic bingo operations. Sure, the government has allowed some private liquor stores in addition to government ones; I guess that's their sop to the private sector, but I'm unimpressed. And given everything else they try to run, I'm half-surprised Saskatchewan's politicians never collectivized the family farm.

Saskatchewan' governments need to let go of the Depression-era (and mistaken) reflex that government should run most everything because that will somehow make life better. By crowding out the opportunity to make a buck, the result has been predictably awful.

Thus, annual per capita business investment in Saskatchewan is just $8,552 compared with $19,705 in Alberta. And the difference shows up in job opportunities. I'll hazard a guess that Saskatchewan's status quo politicians will point to their low unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent as some indication of success.

Sure, compared with the 1930s.

But Alberta's unemployment rate is five per cent and this province added 191,000 people to the labour force over the past five years; Saskatchewan's labour force grew by just 8,000 in the same period. Memo to Saskatchewan's

premier: It's spelt f-r-e-e m-a-r-k-e-t-s.

A response to this, say on government-owned power, is that Albertans pay more to keep the lights on. Yes, we do. And so? Because entrepreneurs have always been valued in Alberta as opposed to Douglas-style hyperbole about redistribution for its own sake, the chance to make a buck also means plentiful job creation -- which no one should sniff at -- and substantially more wealth and income.

Alberta's per capita GDP (our "wealth per person") is $40,150; that's $10,000 above Saskatchewan. Our average labour income is $5,000 higher annually. (And by the way, we send some of that to Saskatchewan in the form of equalization payments.)

So I'll take the higher power bills because the profit potential also means more wealth, higher incomes and a job-creating model unlike the 1930s clunker of a government-run economy next door. My only question is why a significant minority of Saskatchewanites yet prefer life in a museum.

Mark Milke is a Calgary-based freelance writer and author of “Tax Me I'm Canadian”.  He can be contacted at

Prairie Centre Policy Institute
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Regina, SK
S4N 5H4

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