Brad Wall’s provincial problems finally trumped his national stature

The Saskatchewan premier's exit, after nearly 10 years in power, follows a familiar pattern

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s announcement today that he’s resigning landed as a surprise for Canadians from elsewhere who like to follow politics, but are only vaguely aware—inevitably—of what’s really happening in provinces other than their own.

For such engaged yet casual observers, Wall hardly seemed likely to leave anytime soon. He has been running Saskatchewan without serious challenge for almost a decade, but he’s still just 51 years old, and only last year his Saskatchewan Party won a crushing 51 of 61 seats in a provincial election.

Among Conservatives, Wall stands tall. His decision to sit out the recent federal Tory leadership race disappointed many of them. They admired him particularly at moments, like this one, when his was indisputably the most prominent voice opposing the carbon-pricing policy pushed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to combat global warming.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall problem

Typical of his knack for bucking up Conservatives when they’re feeling low was his speech in 2014 to the annual right-wing family gathering that is the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa. At the time, the then-ruling federal Tories felt a growing sense of unease (for good reason, as it turned out) about their chances in the coming 2015 election.

Wall wasn’t above setting a tone that day by screening video of Canada’s Olympic gold-winning women’s hockey team singing O Canada. He took an easy shot at Margaret Atwood—boo, lefty Toronto cosmopolitans!—and wondered aloud why Liberals and New Democrats, as he portrayed them, begrudged Canadians getting rich by selling natural resources.

But the national fan base that ate up this stuff didn’t count for much as Wall’s poll numbers at home took a recent beating. Low prices for oil and other resources hit his government’s bottom line, prompting Wall to table a deeply unpopular belt-tightening budget last spring. Among other measures, he cut library funding (he admitted today that was a mistake), while hiking the province’s sales tax, and extending it to cover previously exempt purchases, like kids’ clothes and restaurant meals.

But would that angry reaction to austerity measures prove fatal? When Maclean’s published a guest column a few weeks ago pointing out Wall’s deepening woes, one of his top lieutenants took umbrage. “He is esteemed in Saskatchewan and across the country because he provides effective, courageous, inspiring leadership,” Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty said in a letter.

RELATED: Letter: ‘Brad Wall deserves better’

Doherty plausibly called Wall “one of the most respected political figures in Canada today,” and said Saskatchewan had, under his leadership, attracted record investment, posted record exports, and recorded its fastest population growth in more than 80 years.

In politics, though, that sort of big-picture defence tends to fall flat when more immediate, palpable issues begin to annoy voters. And this is especially the case, as a rule of thumb, when a premier approaches a decade in power—the rough duration at which successful premiers as varied as Manitoba’s Gary Doer, Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow, and New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna all decided to call it quits.

Now Wall joins their ranks. He leaves behind a gap in major policy debates, particularly when it comes to the mandatory carbon price that Trudeau seeks to impose sometime next year under the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. But that is a national matter, and the reasons behind Wall’s surprise move makes it more appropriate today to dredge up the old maxim about all politics being local.

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