PHOTOS: Tough talk from Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous, above, was directed at Saskatchewan’s cranky government. Below: Saskatchewan’s lame duck premier, Brad Wall (Photo: Jake Wright, Wikimedia Commons); Alberta United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, who calls Mr. Wall “the real leader of Western Canada”; Saskatchewan Highways Minister David Marit; and former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas as a young man (Photo: Canadian Museum of History).
In case you were wondering, there’s almost certainly a backstory to the great Saskatchewan-Alberta licence plate war that broke out yesterday.
Firstly, though, for those of you who dozed through the day, we need to deal with the frontstory … which is that the increasingly cranky Saskatchewan Government still led by lame duck premier Brad Wall did something fairly strange even by the standards of a Western Canadian conservatives.
To wit, it published a news release stating that people driving vehicles with Alberta licence plates won’t be allowed onto jobsites run by the government of the under-populated flat province immediately to the east of us.
The press release issued by Saskatchewan Highways and Infrastructure Minister David Marit didn’t make it clear if the ban will soon be extended to trucks owned by welders from British Columbia, now that they’ve elected an NDP government too, not to mention one that’s considerably chillier to pipelines than Alberta’s. But probably not, seeing as the minister supposedly has his knickers in a twist about something completely different.
New contracts awarded by Mr. Marit’s ministry “will require suppliers to ensure that no vehicles displaying Alberta license plates are present on ministry-funded work sites,” the release said. The list of verboten Albertans includes contractors, sub-contractors, consultants and workers.
“Ministry staff will enforce the contract provision through job site monitoring,” the release added, not explaining what will happen if they catch a worker with an Alberta plate on his or her pickup.
“Saskatchewan contractors tell us that vehicles with Saskatchewan plates are not welcome on Government of Alberta job sites,” Mr. Marit explained in the release. “Saskatchewan operators feel forced to register their vehicles in Alberta if they want to do business there,” the document rambled on. “Today’s announcement just levels the playing field.”
This astonishing revelation was initially met in Alberta by what we might call a WTF moment. Nobody had any idea what the heck Mr. Marit was talking about, since there is no such policy and never has been.
Reporters here called up local construction industry types for their insights: Nobody knew nothin’. “We weren’t aware of any complaints, so it seemed to come out of the blue for us,” a puzzled Paul Cashman of the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association told the CBC.
There’s little doubt, though, that the Wall Government’s bizarre pronouncement was soon met by whoops of joy in the NDP Cabinet Room in Edmonton.
After all, Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government has regularly been excoriated by Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party for not being as unpleasant to the governments of other provinces as he would be about their lack of enthusiasm to see our deeply desired bitumen pipelines running through their backyards.
Arguably, Ms. Notley’s approach has worked better than Mr. Kenney’s ever did in the days he was a big shot in prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government. Just the same, this criticism has gained a certain amount of traction with a large segment of Alberta voters.
So what could be better than an opportunity to talk tough in defence of Albertans to the government of the premier so unpleasant Mr. Kenney once called him “the real leader of Western Canada”? Talk about showers of blessings!
Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous, no doubt forcing himself not to grin and snicker, fired back: Saskatchewan has one week to cut the crap or we’re heading to court. If we had an army, the tanks would be on their way to the border.
By the way, it’s a violation of the New West Partnership inter-provincial trade agreement, Mr. Bilous added, which the new Saskatchewan policy obviously is.
“Brad Wall is absolutely desperate,” Mr. Bilous snapped about Mr. Kenney’s hero. “We know our economy is growing by four per cent, their economy is in the dumps. He’s grasping at straws.” This sounds about right as a matter of fact.
But then, Saskatchewan’s already in a swivet about the Alberta NDP’s efforts to promote the local craft beer industry at the expense of watery corporate brew from Saskatoon, so we can probably expect the war of words to continue.
But what about the backstory?
That’s easy. Auto insurance has cost less in Saskatchewan than Alberta in most years since 1945, when the CCF Government of Premier Tommy Douglas set up Saskatchewan Government Insurance.
SGI, as the Wall conservatives like to call it nowadays without any explanation of what those letters stand for, continues to keep rates for its no-fault insurance down despite the Saskatchewan Party’s “free market” predilections.
Mr. Wall would have loved to privatize it, of course, but that was a step too far for Saskatchewan voters even in the long-ago days when he appeared to be the Mr. Congeniality of Confederation.
So Saskatchewan drivers – especially trades people who have worked for long spells in the Alberta oil patch for many years during our frequent booms – are highly resistant to giving up their green-and-white plates and the insurance that goes with them.
Up-to-date numbers are hard to come by, but in 2013, supposedly the last year for which statistics are available from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the average vehicle cost $882 to insure for a year in Saskatchewan, $1,140 in Alberta.
What’s more, Albertans not only pay more for insurance, costs here are rising faster than costs there. “Albertans are paying four per cent more for car insurance this year than they were in 2016,” Global News Edmonton reported in October. “Rates in the province are 24 per cent higher than the national average.”
The law in Alberta – widely ignored by Saskatchewan drivers as the number of plates visible on any weekday attests – requires vehicle owners to change registration and insurance after 90 days of residency.
In the absence of actual facts, this seems likely to be the source of Mr. Marit’s doubtless sincerely held belief that “Saskatchewan operators have been subject to this treatment in Alberta for years.”
Don’t blame the NDP, though. Blame the Mounties! They, of course, know what’s what because they’re all trained in Regina.
That free-market Alberta is run by a social democratic government and social-democratically insured Saskatchewan by an ideologically free-market government is merely an unintended irony.
Mr. Wall announced on Aug. 10 he was retiring from politics. He hasn’t retired yet though. Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that he will leave soon. The tone is bound to improve immediately.